The media, military and modern Israel

The JC Essay


By Yoel Cohen, March 4, 2013
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The odds were against it. At the outset, November's Operation Pillar of Defence appeared similar to previous IDF operations, including Cast Lead in 2008, and the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident. In both, the Palestinians were cast as the underdog and the instinctively sympathetic Western media had the script written as soon as the first shots were fired.

Last year it was different. A CNN poll midway through the operation found that 57 per cent of Americans justified the Israeli action. To shine light on the reason for this and on the lessons to be learnt from earlier failures in the information war, we must consider whether Israel has a doctrine on military-media relations.

According to the literature on military-media relations - whether about Israel or other democracies - the main issue is over providing information about war events when military secrecy is the ultimate objective. On the one hand, there is an obligation for transparency in democracies. On the other, there is a need to ensure that nothing is disclosed that compromises secrecy or divulges operational intelligence to the enemy.

Where is the happy medium? This question has arisen for Israel in every war since 1948 - as it has in the wars involving all Western democracies. But over the years there has been a decided shift toward the democratic objective of giving the media access to information and the battlefront. This shift has occurred, however, as much because of the physical impossibility of closing the combat area to cameras and microphones, as because of a commitment to democratic values. A situation such as that of the 1982 British-Argentinian war, in which UK forces totally controlled all access points to the islands, is generally not an option for Israel. Access is inevitably conditioned by the policy on the Arab side.

There is a need to ensure that nothing is disclosed that compromises secrecy or divulges operational intelligence to the enemy

Where the foreign media has not had access to the Arab side, Israel has enjoyed the luxury of limiting the media from its side. Yet during the Lebanon war in 1982, defence minister Ariel Sharon made the costly mistake of limiting access into southern Lebanon for both Israeli and foreign journalists in Israel. As a result, foreign journalists in Western Beirut - unrestrained by the Lebanese authorities - heavily determined the media's image.

The media's presence in wartime goes back to the mid-19th century, when the US press covered the American-Mexican war. In 1859, the Times sent William Russell to cover the Crimean War. Now considered the first modern war correspondent, he spent 22 months at the frontline. In the Second World War reporters like Edward Murrow provided vivid radio reporting from European capitals. With the arrival of television the visual element to war coverage began - even if film had to be flown out from war zones by plane, then developed and edited. Thus, though Vietnam is regarded as the first "television war", film had to be flown from Vietnam via Hong Kong to New York - resulting in a gap of at least 24 hours between filming and broadcast. Notwithstanding this delay, TV pictures of dead servicemen generated widespread anger among the American public, generating pressure for a US withdrawal from Vietnam.

Even greater immediacy came with the arrival of satellites. This was first felt during the Yom Kippur war, Israel having been linked to the Early Bird satellite a year earlier. By the time of the 1972 Munich Olympics, cameras at the Games covered in vivid detail for audiences everywhere the fate of the Israeli athletes taken hostage.

The delay between filming an event and its broadcast had been even further reduced by the Gulf War. By then, there were portable satellite transmitters at the battlefront. Later, laptops and email enabled reporters and photographers to file directly from the field. The convergence of visual media, audio media and text in the computer age has enriched news coverage yet further. And since the genesis of the internet people outside Israel have also been able to surf Israeli news media online. Today, surfers of Israeli media can benefit from a generally more comprehensive and arguably more balanced coverage than that offered by foreign media.

Any discussion of military-media relations requires us to distinguish between the Israeli domestic media and the foreign media. Israel has the tenth largest foreign press corps, which multiplies to beyond three figures at times of major crisis. Yet whereas the Israeli government has an obligation to update the public at home through the conduit of the media, any obligation to keep the international public informed is far less defined.

The obligation to keep the domestic public up to date was less challenging for policymakers in the first 25 years of Israeli statehood because the Israeli media of the time was inclined to be deferential. The Editors Committee - which had its origins in the Yishuv period - was a forum for Israeli prime ministers and senior officials to brief editors and mould opinion, at times seeking the media's co-operation in not publishing sensitive military information. It remains in place today; it was used last month by the government in seeking media co-operation to not publish information about the circumstances surrounding the death of the Australian-born Mossad agent, Ben Zygier in an Israeli prison in 2010.

But following the Yom Kippur war, the Israeli media redefined their relationship with officialdom. In the days before the outbreak of war, there had been reports of an Egyptian military exercise, but Prime Minister Golda Meir appealed to the patriotic senses of editors not to publish the information lest it unduly arouse public concern on the eve of the Yom Kippur fast. Had the media published anyway, the disclosure might have generated public and Knesset pressure for greater military preparedness. In the wake of this, a post-mortem led the media to adopt increasingly critical and sceptical attitudes toward the government. This scepticism has since widened to other agencies including the Shin Bet and Mossad, following scandals in the 1980s and 1990s. Media doubts about government denials over the causes of Zygier's death have created a new crisis of confidence in media-Mossad relations.

The tension is not unique to Israel, of course. In the aftermath of conflicts including Vietnam, the Gulf War, and the Falklands there were official inquiries examining the nature of relationships with the media at times of conflict. In Israel the issue came to the fore in 1990, when a Knesset sub-committee examined the workings of Israeli censorship, including the arrangement by which editors of newspapers belonging to the Editors Committee received deep briefings. One question examined by the inquiry was the clause under which journalists of news organisations belonging to this group were not placed on trial for breaches of censorship, in lieu of not appealing the censor's decisions through the civil courts. Ironically, both journalists and officials preferred to continue with this anachronistic arrangement.

The very question of the importance of the media in military affairs is intertwined with that of the significance of public opinion. Lord Home, former Prime Minister once said curtly: "I don't think the public has much to say about foreign affairs." Yet Professor Moshe Arens, looking back on his period as Israel's ambassador to the US, told me that one should not underestimate the exposure of officials in Washington to the media.

In 1982, after the Sabra and Shatila massacre, international criticism and media pressure contributed to the war's end. Had civilian casualties in Gaza in Pillar of Defence been more widespread, it could have rapidly turned international opinion against Israel. Still, in Pillar of Defence, as with so many conflicts, geopolitical interests determined the outcome. Mass media and public opinion were, at best, secondary factors determining the wider environment in which policymakers functioned. The government was anxious to avoid expanding to a ground operation in the run-up to the election, given the uncertainties. The US, and Egypt, under heavy pressure from Washington, also sought to avoid this.

Strategic and economic interests have far greater weight. At best, the role of public opinion and mass media is to limit the options open to policymakers. Eyal Arad, adviser to Ariel Sharon during the 2006 Lebanon war, told me that in spite of intensive coverage of the war, the media had no effect on its running, except after the Qana incident in which 28 civilians died, including 16 children. As Arad admitted, the Qana incident resulted in military operations ceasing - but only for 48 hours.

Where the media's influence may be detected is more in the timing and packaging of policy. The need for a swift diplomatic reaction occurs, for example, after a terror attack. A former foreign ministry official, Alon Liol, noted that after the Sbarro restaurant bombing in Jerusalem, "we sat with the minister around the television… following TV reports from the scene, and thrashed out a reaction to waiting journalists".

Yet we are seeing a turning point regarding public opinion's role in warfare. The emergence of social media - conducted by the non-journalistic broader public, without traditional aspirations of objectivity and neutrality - has implications for how the international image of the Arab-Israeli conflict is constructed.

When considering the role played by social media, a distinction must be drawn between active public opinion and wider passive public opinion. Tools like Twitter have connected interested audiences. They have given diaspora Jews a more direct role to play in conflict involving Israel. Those outside Israel are no longer dependent on information filtered by the news media. They can receive undiluted information from official sources - by the third day of the Gaza operation, the IDF Spokesman's Facebook page had 28,000 friends, and its English Twitter 97,500 followers. By the end of the operation, the number of Twitter followers had doubled.

But the extent to which IDF-sponsored social media reaches the broader international public is more debatable. PR strategists have failed to crack the enigma of monitoring and responding to hundreds of thousands of websites. In any case, research suggests that many surfers are satisfied by mainstream news websites.

During Pillar of Defence, Hamas and Israel traded barbs via Twitter. After the IDF tweeted that "no Hamas operative should show their head above ground in the days ahead", Hamas responded: "Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers." Some have questioned whether a sovereign state should stoop to trade jibes with terrorists, but perhaps the true significance of social media lies in the fact that for the first time the publics of two sides in a conflict can engage with each other.

Advancements in technology and changing understanding of the impact of public opinion have energised governments, including Israel's, toward the need to mould public attitudes. As far back as the 1930s the Zionist movement recognised the importance of the Jewish Agency fostering ties with foreign correspondents in Palestine and reporters in the Hebrew press. The Haganah had a spokesman. A Jewish underground radio station issued communiques.

Undoubtedly, Israel has overestimated the ability of administrative solutions to mould media and public image and failed to give enough credit to news values as key determinants. Israeli officials - like PR officials in other open societies - are inclined to overestimate their ability to control the message. They have been slow to recognise that media coverage of an event is determined by its intrinsic newsworthiness. The last Gaza operation lasted a week. Longer events, like the intifada, lost their news value for the foreign media long before any resolution. And, ultimately, the news value of Israeli military events is also determined by what else is on the international agenda at the time.

When it comes to the media and the military, Israel clearly still has a way to go. But it can't be denied that in November - with regular updates on social media, and a more direct and open approach - the military at least showed signs of understanding why it matters.

Yoel Cohen is a professor in the school of communication at Ariel University Centre. His most recent book is 'God, Jews and the Media: Religion & Israel's media' (Routledge)

Last updated: 9:45am, March 4 2013