Frank Melloul is a dapper Frenchman who oozes affability, as befits his former role as a diplomat, advising presidents and prime ministers.
Lucy Aharish is model-thin, with chocolate-brown eyes and artfully disarranged hair, a persuasive manner and machine-gun speed conversation.
The unlikely pairing are the public face of one of Israel’s most radical communications developments: i24, a Jaffa-based international news TV station giving Al-Jazeera a run for its money.
Melloul is CEO of i24, created off-the-peg in 100 days last summer at the behest of French-Israeli millionaire Patrick Drahi, who already owns an Israeli cable TV channel.
And Aharish is the station’s poster girl: an Israeli Arab, a Muslim woman, who had gone as far as she could go in Israeli TV news and fought tooth and nail to become the lead anchor in the evening edition of i24’s English news programmes. (It broadcasts in English, French and Arabic — but not in Hebrew.)
Last week they were in London for a lightning visit and saw top officials at the BBC. “They really didn’t like us,” grins Aharish, with a certain satisfaction. “We told them, your correspondents are doing a terrible job. They don’t know Israel like we know Israel. And we are telling stories they are not telling.”
The story of i24 is a modern media romance which almost befits the TV series, The Newsroom. It begins with Melloul stepping leaving his diplomatic career to help set up France24, a round-the-clock broadcaster launched to help explain France’s policies after it differed with the US over Iraq. France24 was very successful and, as a result, just before Yom Kippur 2012, Patrick Drahi called Melloul and told him: “Now it’s time you did something for your country.” If Melloul were in any doubt as to which country was meant, he was soon swiftly disabused.
He made aliyah last year and hit the ground running, building the Jaffa studios modelled on France24; large, open-plan newsrooms with editors for the different language versions of the same programmes working from the same desk.
“Every time the architects or builders said it couldn’t be done, that I was crazy, I just went ahead,” he says. “So we began broadcasting in July last year.”
Six months down the line, with i24 news available on satellites in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia, Melloul reckons they reach “more than 810 million households”. In Britain, he has been in talks with Sky but viewers have been able to sample i24 on its free app.
The pair insist theirs is not a propaganda station. Aharish tells how the Hamas spokeswoman in Gaza has been avid to make her case on the programme “every night”. Melloul handles the political rough and tumble with a diplomat’s savoir-faire. Those who decline to appear are warned that they risk international humiliation — and almost everyone, include Israel’s fractious peace camp, has caved in.