Imagine the Met Police had just said Theresa May should be charged with corruption for pushing laws worth millions of pounds to ITV in return for positive news coverage about her. That, in essence, is what has just happened in Israel.
Welcome to the mysteriously-named Case 4,000.
Allies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who at the time in question also held the communication minister’s brief, are alleged to have promoted legislation worth millions of dollars for Israeli telecoms giant Bezeq, in return for positive press coverage of Netanyahu in Bezeq’s news website, Walla.
For the few fans of Mr Netanyahu and his profligate wife Sara, it doesn’t read well. Journalists at Walla say they were frequently told to refrain from negative reporting, which tallies with what the police say – that for five years Netanyahu and his henchmen “blatantly intervened” almost daily at the level of Bezeq’s owner, promoting flattering coverage (even to the point of changing photos) and quietly hushing anything problematic.
It just goes to show that in this age of free news, someone still pays.
The charge is ironic. Netanyahu, who has long railed against “fake news,” is now accused of buying better coverage with legislation. But the timing is also ironic. Just two weeks ago, a major study found that 70 percent of statements made by senior Israeli politicians were partially or wholly untrue.
It found that a Netanyahu whopper was among the biggest. He said Iran was “required to come clean [to international monitors] about its nuclear programme”. This statement had more than seven million exposures in traditional or social media, and was perceived as credible by 88 percent of readers or viewers. Yet Iran is not required to reveal all about it nuclear programme. It is only required to fulfil its obligations under the agreed ‘road-map,’ much of which relates just to the military aspects.
Bibi’s not alone. Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (recently indicted for corruption, fraud, breach of trust, obstructing court proceedings and tax offences worth millions of shekels) said he alone was authorised to submit bills on conversions. He’s not. The lies are not confined to ministers, either. Centrist politician and possible future PM Yair Lapid lied about housing- and food-price inflation, in comments that went viral.
These were lies published – but not corrected – by mainstream, regulated Israeli media. That’s my worry. The idea that politicians lie is no shocker. The idea that Israel’s formidably independent and free press doesn’t fact-check the basics is. As foreign editor at Jewish News, I rely on Israeli reporting. Has that reporting been bought? Is it no longer subject to the most rudimentary checks? The dangers are clear: Israeli media is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a wealthy few, including those who have a political dog in the race.
Beyond concerns about my own reporting, I’m alarmed to think what Israelis are being fed. If untruths pass unchecked or unquestioned so easily through Israeli media, the Israel Democracy Institute says the country is “in real trouble,” not least because stories are still searchable online days, weeks, months and years later. The stakes are high because Israelis are among the biggest media consumers in the world – more than 50 percent of the population read at least one daily newspaper, and similarly high percentages on talk radio and TV news. Trust in politicians is at an all-time low. Is trust in journalism going the same way?
All is not lost. The non-partisan NGO behind the aforementioned study is called The Whistle. I’m relying on it ever more. Set up last year, its sole task is to fact-check political speech in Israel, to “identify misinformation,” as Israel’s only member of the International Fact Checking Network (IFCN), led by Poynter Media Institute and Politifact. The Whistle looks when others leave, and identifies inaccuracies. It can now show which topics contain the most lies, including the Netanyahu police investigation (19 percent), the West Bank and Gaza (18), religion and state (15), domestic socio-economic issues (14) and asylum-seekers (9). On emotive topics such as the death penalty for terrorists, untrue statements soar.
While Case 4,000 (if proven) may shame the Israeli leader and his inner circle, it also shows how precarious the country’s free press is. This is a pillar on which Israel’s democracy is built. As journalists, we can but do our job, and must do better in at least raising doubts when statements cannot be substantiated. We are taught to check and challenge those in power, not simply regurgitate press releases, so the system relies on us asking the questions, but it also relies on those we question not leaning on – or bribing – those who publish what we report. Case 4,000 helps with the former. Fact-checkers like The Whistle help with the latter. Get both right, and you can still believe what you read in the papers.