POLITICIANS with big egos and a hunger for power like to be seen in the papers hobnobbing with the rich, famous and powerful and praised for their achievements, whether real or illusory. It is good for their image and increases their chance of staying in power. The lengths to which they will go is illustrated by an Israeli scandal this week, where PM Benjamin Netanyahu is being questioned by the police on suspicion of secretly offering financial and business benefits to Israel’s mass-circulation, mainstream Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper in exchange for it presenting him in a more positive light.
Israelis are outraged that a vintage paper like Yedioth, founded in 1939, which has historically dominated Israeli print media in circulation and advertising sales should be involved in this. It has for decades nurtured a reputation for a centrist, balanced attitude to Israeli affairs. Readers feel betrayed by another self-seeking politician – no less than the prime minister – and a pliant paper.
The details are still unclear, but the major evidence against Netanyahu is a conversation secretly recorded of him apparently hammering out a deal with Yedioth publisher and media tycoon Arnon Mozes that would benefit them both: Yedioth would reduce criticism of him and publish more favourable stories, and in exchange Netanyahu would limit the availability of Yedioth’s competitor, Israel Hayom, a free paper founded in 2007 and funded by American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, which today has the widest circulation. This could bring Yedioth back into print media dominance.
Politicians do it everywhere, whether for egotistical or ideological reasons. We’ve had plenty in South Africa. During apartheid, control of the media was deeply entrenched, with white leaders of the regime mostly portrayed as heroic figures fighting the “swart gevaar” (black threat) and communism. South Africans who lived through those years remember the infamous regular “Current Affairs” programme of the SA Broadcasting Corporation, which conveyed the message that all was well and the only problems came from troublemakers who should be forcefully controlled.
In President Jacob Zuma’s era we’ve had, among other things, crude tactics by former SABC boss Hlaudi Motsoeneng – allegedly with Zuma’s backing – banning images on SABC channels of public violence during civic protests, to make the ANC government look less catastrophic. Zuma is shown travelling the world, meeting with important and powerful people, with less comment about his corruption and incompetence. Most South Africans get their news from the SABC.
Another case is the establishment by Zuma’s close friends, the rich Gupta family, of their own newspaper and television channel, which presents positive news on Zuma and counters accusations against the family of influencing government officials for their business interests.
Netanyahu has been caught red-handed in a possible criminal act. Calls are being heard for him to resign. He is, aside from this saga, deeply unpopular, even among significant numbers of his own Likud party and the right wing, which he represents.
A newspaper’s credibility and the trust its readers place in it has to be built up painstakingly over a long time. It can be lost in an instant by such a scandal. Yedioth will have a hard time recovering trustworthiness.
All publishers and editors of serious newspapers experience pressure or enticements to report things in a way which will bolster certain viewpoints or the status of individuals. It is hard to resist when the publications’ financial well-being and sometimes their own jobs are on the line. But the red lines are there.
The illustrious New York Times faced a crisis in 2003 when one of its reporters was found to have fabricated stories, and it had to apologise. Some editors resigned. In its apology, it said a newspaper depends “on the confidence that readers place in it, a confidence based on the belief that every day, the paper struggles mightily to get things right … Like all human enterprises, journalism is not perfectible. But it should always be heading in that direction.”
Netanyahu’s apparent deal-making with the media for the sake of his image shows how much he is just like any other politician concerned more with his own power than the good of the country.