How to argue Israel’s case: lessons from a media guru

The country’s representatives in the UK called in a top spin doctor for advice on getting their viewpoint across to an increasingly hostile media. Alex Kasriel went along to see what they learned


Linda Lovitch teaches delegates in London how to survive media questioning. She recommends “branching” — changing the subject

Linda Lovitch teaches delegates in London how to survive media questioning. She recommends “branching” — changing the subject

A spokesman for Israel is staring into a television camera answering questions about why the country acts in a disproportionate manner in its treatment of Palestinians.

The spokesman, Richard Millett, knows his stuff — he has a master’s degree on the Israeli-Arab conflict — but is visibly feeling the pressure. At one stage, he thinks his interviewer is accusing Israel of committing war crimes, and says so, adding: “A solider has got to decide whether the importance of the military target outweighs the risk of civilian casualties.” From the audience, the sound of tutting is heard.

But the audience is not outraged at the mention of Israeli soldiers shooting civilians, but by the spokesman’s decision to bring up the fact that Israel is accused of committing war crimes.

This is because the audience is on Israel’s side. This is actually a mock interview, the questioner is Alan Aziz, director of the Zionist Federation, and the tutters are fellow delegates on a ZF training course for British spokesmen who talk to the UK media about Israeli issues. Leading the workshop is media guru Linda Lovitch, who has trained, among others, the Israeli Prime Minister’s spokesman Mark Regev to spin with skill.

Lovitch tells Millet that he should never raise an issue or accusation against Israel that has not been put to him.

This is just one of the many pointers, the American Israeli — who has degrees in psychology, theatre and communications — has up her sleeve for defending Israel against a hostile media.

She has many others: “Don’t attack the other person. The minute you get angry and upset, people think: ‘Those oppressive Israelis’.
Also: “Nobody likes a history lesson. Remember ‘Kiss’ — keep it simple, stupid!”

She insists: “You have to prepare for every interview. Know the basic thread, get across two or three messages. Do not be afraid of acknowledging that Israel doesn’t always do the right thing.”
And she adds: “Do not always jump to the defence. Sometimes, we think we are being attacked when we are not.”

A favourite technique is what she calls “branching”. Lovitch shows a video in which Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu avoids answering a question by cleverly changing the subject and sticking to his own agenda. She also mentions that British spokespersons should never say “we” when they are talking about Israel. It makes the argument sound less objective.

Millet is often called upon to speak for Israel on the Iranian television channel Press TV and is one of 18 people selected from 150 applicants to attend the course.

When lawyer Barbara Pontecorvo — who has come especially from Italy to attend the course — takes the seat in front of the camera, Lovitch reminds everyone that women often come across better as they are less aggressive than men.

Pontecorvo is nervous because English is not her first language. But when she does her piece in her native Italian, her posture relaxes and she uses her hands more — all of which Lovitch says is good, even though she cannot understand a word of what is being said.

Before the mock interviews, Lovitch spends some time analysing news reports from Sky, BBC, CNN and Press TV. In her view, most of the material is biased against Israel, focusing on the plight of the Palestinian victims rather than those on the Israeli side. Israelis in the main are portrayed as aggressors with large tanks.

She says later: “I remember one piece by Brent Sadler on CNN in which he covered a refugee camp in Lebanon. The Palestinians there showed him the deeds to their houses in Palestine and even coins. I believe this causes confusion for the general public.

They think that there was a state of Palestine before the Jews moved there in ’48 and took over. I’ve also been bothered by the BBC reports when they follow suicide bombers preparing for their missions. This means they are hanging out with known terrorists who are planning specific attacks and don’t inform Israel about it.” She argues that many of the European channels are biased against Israel because they reflect their countries shame about their colonial past.

“In Europe and Britain it’s a whole different story compared to the USA,” she says. “They have a difficult relationship with Israel. They see it as the same thing they did as colonists. They have got their own guilt about colonies.”

Lovitch admits, however, that Israel could do more to advance its case by playing the media game. “We don’t see Arabs and Jews sitting together, for example, in Israeli hospitals — being treated equally,” she says.

“And we have a dilemma — we want to show two conflicting messages. One, we’re victims; two, we’re a lovely place to visit. There’s a need for better co-ordination between the different government
ministries.”

After more gruelling rounds of interviews, and on-the-spot Q&As in mock demo zones, Richard Millet reflects on what he has learned from the two-day course. What has impressed him most is discovering that the key to getting your message across is not only about what you say, but how you look.

“Apparently, the body language is 55 per cent of it, he says: “How to sit, learning to stay still, being attentive when other people are talking. It is quite dispiriting, after doing a two-year master’s degree that it all comes down to body language.”
Another delegate, Keith Fraser, is a Zionist Federation representative often interviewed on radio shows. He was recently pitted against Lauren Booth, Cherie Blair’s sister and prominent critic of Israel on a Talk Sport phone-in.

“What I took away from the course is that it is important to keep the message simple for the people out there,” he says. “I shouldn’t try to over complicate things. We have to understand that most people don’t have this in-depth knowledge.”

Staying on Message

In media interviews, Israel’s representatives aim to get
across seven key points:

- Israel wants peace

- Israel is under constant threat and has no margin of error on security issues

- Israel must protect its citizens

- Everything Israel does is reactive/defensive

- Israel believes in the two-state solution

- Israel is prepared to live side-by-side in peace and security with a Palestinian state

- Israelis didn’t want the security fence, only after two years of people being slaughtered was it built out of necessity.

    Last updated: 3:43pm, June 11 2009