Tuesday, April 08, 2003

The Height of Chutzpah

The headline in Haaretz called it the “height of chutzpah.” I’d have to agree.

Last night, I sat down in front of the television for my usual news channel surfing. I wanted to see the latest developments in the war with Iraq. As always, I started with CNN (Channel 12), then began clicking the channel changer to check out BBC (Channel 13), Sky (Channel 14), and finally the Israeli stations.

But Channel 13 had been replaced by a text screen informing viewers that, as of April 1, the BBC was gone.

Not to worry though, the screen informed us. We still had the other news channels. And we could always sign up for the new more expensive digital cable where we could get Fox News. But no more BBC.

Was this some kind of April Fool’s joke?

Now, say what you will about the BBC’s coverage (and many have been less than flattering), but having it available is still a basic expectation from a Western-oriented country’s cable service. All the more so in the middle of a war! Haaretz wrote:

“Within the service packages promised by the cable companies to their customers, the major international news networks - CNN, BBC, and Sky - are the ‘bread and butter’ of media. These are not entertainment luxuries but a basic need in modern democratic society.”

The decision to take the station dark was not ideological; it was a purely financial matter: the cable companies, despite their near-monopoly and outrageous prices for mediocre service, are in dire financial straits and couldn’t come to terms with the Beeb over numbers. The same issue came up with CNN a few months ago, though it never got to the point of the station being yanked off the air.

In all probability, the BBC will be back in a few days after this strong-arm technique raises ire in quarters beyond Haaretz. But the incident is indicative of the way Israelis too often view the English language media.

You might think, for example, that being so often at the center of the world’s attention Israel’s home grown media would have a fairly balanced mix of Hebrew and English news programming. Especially in a country where, every hour on the hour, everyone stops to hear the latest news updated.

But no, Israel TV broadcasts a mere 12 minutes a day of news in English. Israel Radio fares a little better with a 15-minute news program in English aired several times a day on Reshet Aleph (Radio Channel 1).

When the war with Iraq started, however, Reshet Aleph became the “Silent Station,” on the air but with no broadcasts except in times of emergency (it’s a hold-over tradition from the first Gulf War that allows listeners to leave their radios on, including on Shabbat, only to be woken up in case of emergency).

As a result, the English news got shifted to another, albeit less strong frequency. OK so far.

But as of last week, it was decided that Reshet Aleph can broadcast regular programming, at least during the day. Good for listeners of the English news, right? Wrong. English news is still on the weak frequency. For all we know, it may never go back at all.

For all our pretensions about being part of the global community, Israel remains a pretty provincial place. Another example: languages other than Hebrew don't rank high on the respect list. A few years ago, the Knesset enacted legislation requiring our pop radio stations to play a minimum of 40% Hebrew-language music. Not as bad as France, but why is the Knesset getting involved in this kind of lawmaking in the first place?

And while we're discussing politics, just look who’s our new foreign minister: Silvan Shalom. One would think that an important qualification of this critical post, one that is in large part entrusted with explaining Israel’s position via the world media, would be a solid command of English. Shalom isn’t horrible, but he’s nowhere close to his predecessor Bibi Netanyahu who has long been considered a master communicator.

But then the position of Foreign Minister has always been awarded according to internal political considerations. How else to explain that David Levy, who doesn’t speak English at all, once served in the post.

The collision between politics and media can sometimes play itself out in entirely unexpected and unfortunate ways. Jerusalem listeners remember Radio West, an illegal pirate station that broadcast 24 hours a day in English during 1998 and 1999. Despite a playlist that consisted almost entirely of bad 1970s anthem rock (can you say Kansas and Stix?), Radio West was a godsend for those of us who missed English language programming from the old country. Heck they even had the weathercast in English.

The police raided Radio West in June1999 and shut it down for operating without a license. Which was true: they never pretended they were a legitimate state-run station. But what irked many is that it seemed that Radio West was singled out. The many religious pirate stations continued on. But Radio West didn’t have the protexia these other constituencies had. They were just too easy a target.

Now, I’m sure I’m raising the dander of some of you out there who will say I’m just a big baby. That I should learn to speak Hebrew better and stop whining. But there are hundreds, if not thousands, of foreign reporters in this country who rely on the English news.

More importantly, though, if we can’t come to terms with English as the global language of diplomacy, in both our ministries and our media, how are we ever going to be able to successfully argue our case in the court of world opinion?

And that starts from being able to channel surf and hear every angle on what’s being said.

Including the BBC.

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