31 January 2007

Danny Seaman - the other side of Hasbara

The issue of Israeli Hasbara is being discussed more and more lately. It seems that the recognition of the simple fact that our PR sucks is becoming widespread. In researching Hasbara and consequently its persistent failures, a name kept popping up in a variety of articles. To be honest, I would have ignored this person had I not found so much material pointing in his direction. One side of Hasbara that made me curios, was the heat with which foreign journalist seemingly had it "in" for Israel on every reportable occurrence. Knowing that Palestinians have made an art form out of hosting foreign journalists, I couldn't figure out how Israel couldn't outperform them in this seemingly simple task. One can assume that if curtsey accompaniment is lavished on foreign Hacks by Palestinians hosts, these in turn can guide the reporters to see and write on suitable materials for the Palestinian Hasbara – which kind of makes simple sense. And so, I would like to focus on one single aspect of the Hasbara – the treatment journalists receive at the hands of our Government Press Office and its chief honcho, one Danny Seaman.

If you want to know how one, relatively small government office seemingly succeeds in destroying any attempt to improve the Israel’s image, here is the apparent formula:

  • Say things like: “How are journalists different from any other foreign workers?”;
  • Create an atmosphere of fear where no journalist, foreign or Israeli, dares to raise his voice in protest;
  • And as a result, cause more damage to the state of Israel than a concerted IAF bombing raid on the HQs of CNN, AFP, Reuters, AP and, of course, Al Jazeera, ever could
continue reading. It is a very long post, be warned!

1. Introduction – Hasbara in general

Our Hasbara suffers from many problems. Self-righteousness is the least of its sins, since it suffers from many other maladies that make it impotent and sometimes counter-productive. Our face to the world is that of a shrill, arrogant, inattentive and provincial schoolmaster that came to teach the world a lesson in everything. We do not learn from other people’s mistakes and, unfortunately, we do not learn even from our own ever accumulating body of bloopers, hasty and incorrect reports, bloody broken English and more, much more of what makes any attempt at PR a waste.

Of course, one of the problems is that this sphere is dominated by the unsmiling “My-Israel-right-or-wrong-Israel-innocent-victim” crowd. But to see the general problem of our Hasbara in a nutshell, one cannot avoid quoting from Bradley Burston’s Israel's spokesman, Israel's enemy article:
The very concept of public relations goes against every cultural fiber in the sabra psyche. It violates the sabra sacraments of directness, bluntness, in-your-face, come-what-may hyper-openness. "We know the truth - here it is, deal with it," the Israeli psyche screams. To minimum avail.

For decades, work in public relations was doled out as political patronage, or as a solution for unwanted civil servants or injured and disgruntled or well-connected army officers.

Rabin hated PR, Shamir hated it, Barak hates it, Sharon was intensely suspicious of it. Even Netanyahu, as telegenic and media savvy as he is, is often hostile to reporters and bitter about his image

Little wonder, then, that there are those, among official spokespeople for Israel, who don't know that they don't know what they're doing.
All of the above rings so true that only a representative of the government PR crowd will argue with it, and he/she probably will – to no avail. What can I say – thanks deity for MEMRI and for hundreds of Israeli journalists who do their best in damage control.

2. Danny Seaman comes into the picture

To remind you, this post is not about Hasbara in general. It is about one aspect of it – the treatment of foreign journalists. Good PR cannot afford to ignore the foreign press. No matter how objective and friendly (or vice versa) the journalist is, his/her reporting from the field starts with the inevitable encounter with the government officials that greet the arriving journalist and are supposed to ease his/her way around Israel and the West Bank, with all its complexities and dangers.

The relationship between the government and the foreign correspondents was never too easy. But it really began to deteriorate somewhere in the beginning of the first intifada, when the pictures and films from the territories inundated the mass media in the West, making the life of Israeli spokesmen more difficult than usual. The image of IDF and Israel in general took a severe beating - from which it has never, in fact, recovered. The attitude of various government offices to journalists, especially the foreign ones, worsened. The atmosphere of suspicion, undue censorship (the severity of which was directly related to the level of criticism that a specific reporter infused in his/her text) and all kinds of bureaucratic difficulties grew.

However, it was all light and games compared to the new “regime” installed by the current GPO chief, Danny Seaman, who took the reins in 2000.

GPO’s role is defined quite precisely in the following quote from a government site:

The Government Press Office (GPO) is an agency within the Prime Minister's Office assigned with the responsibility of coordinating channels of communication between the Israeli government and the press corps. The GPO issues press accreditation and are responsible for facilitating press coverage of key state functions and visits of foreign dignitaries.
One of Seaman’s first acts was to enforce the law that requires foreign journalists to have the same work visas as other foreign workers. On the one hand, the law does apply to everyone. But on the other hand, this law could be abused by a person or group that want to abuse it. And here comes a hint:
The director of the Government Press Office (GPO), Danny Seaman, said that in the past few years, over 60 foreign journalists have encountered problems in extending their work visas. "There have been many cases when journalists have been illegal residents," he said. "They have my phone number, and if they have a problem they call me."
Sixty journalists that for some mysterious reason encountered problems… And that reference to “my phone number”: doesn’t it sound suspiciously close to “I am the law here”?

During the second intifada (the period that overlaps with Danny’s reign) the bad relationship turned into an outright war. The main reason was the use of local Palestinian stringers by the media agencies. On the agencies’ side it was a reasonable way to get the information from the field, without bringing in expensive foreign personnel and endangering people (if they were permitted to enter the West Bank or Gaza at all). The GPO obviously did not like the idea of Palestinian stringers, and this started a real war between the GPO and the FPA (Foreign Press Association).

There were no winners in this war – only losers. And one of the losers was – and still is - our Hasbara.

You can see the utter stupidity of our Government Press Office in Bradley’s article, with Danny Seaman taking a star role. A shining example of mistreatment of a journalist:
Seaman was asked to comment on a case in which veteran Israel-based foreign correspondent Joerg Bremer of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, may be disallowed re-entry into Israel after he challenged seemingly arbitrary - and perhaps politically slanted - practices of granting work visas to journalists.

Irked that the German government agreed to help Bremer in his fight, Seaman responded, "I feel like screwing him over just because of this*. What kind of gall is this, for the German government to interfere in Israel's internal affairs? How are journalists different from any other foreign workers?"

Told that Bremer maintained that the visa difficulties were politically based, Seaman's reply was nothing if not direct. "I maintain that he's an idiot. That's ridiculous. If I issued press cards according to content, no one at Haaretz would get a card."
(*) In the original conversation, according to Haaretz internal sources, Seaman said “I feel like fucking him over…”, the change was enforced by the editor.

How Seaman thinks he can get away with this kind of attitude is a mystery. Take a look at this exchange (the text in bold is for the interviewer)
I think it's the intimidation ... .

What intimidation?

(Being) shot at ... .

Only in areas where there was combat, and they were not supposed to be there.

Gideon Levy's car was shot at.

He's not foreign press, (so) I don't have to answer that ... .
Priceless, isn’t it? And there is more, much more, of the same.

Here comes another fine example of what Danny thinks about the people he is supposed to serve in his capacity as the DGO of Government Press Office:
In his professional capacity Seaman mediates between the foreign journalists and the various authorities in Israel. While the latter receive ample representation, the former are perceived as a rather bothersome nuisance. Seaman is not ashamed to admit it. He considers the foreign correspondents to be a bunch of spoiled brats that until now has received privileged conditions and has repaid that by giving back the finger.
And what do Reporters Without Borders think about the GPO and Seaman?
Reporters Without Borders expressed great alarm today at new rules in Israel for accrediting journalists, who would have to be cleared by the Shin Bet state security police, and called for them to be immediately dropped as a serious threat to press freedom and flagrant violation of journalists’ rights. The new rules, which would take effect on 1 January, apply to all journalists - foreign, Palestinian and Israeli - working in Israel.

"Having Shin Bet approve applications for press cards is totally undemocratic and harmful to press freedom," said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard. "Already Israel is the only democratic country where such cards are issued by a government agency rather than by elected journalists’ representatives."

"Now, for alleged security reasons, the authorities want to decide who can or cannot work as a journalist and therefore bar some Israeli and foreign journalists from covering the Palestinian conflict."
Security reasons… There’s no denying that security is an important issue in Israel, but too many hideous crimes have been carried out in the name of security. Do we want to be on the same list as Cuba – to use one revolting example of repression of free press?

And this is not all as far as Danny’s attempts to curb the freedom of press are concerned. Danny tried to instill security vetting even for Israeli journalists as a pre-condition for issuance of the press-card. I wonder whether he dreams about newly vetted Israeli journalists giving their vow of allegiance to the State in general and Danny Seaman in particular. Near the Western Wall, with a few strategically placed Israeli flags too…

Here is what a prominent pro-Israeli journalist, Tom Gross, has to say about Seaman (notice the low key approach):
Seaman, a civil servant, does not mince words when he describes the foreign media's conduct in Israel. Some may regard it as folly to gloat publicly as Seaman does that he pressured a journalist's employer.
This was in reference to the Kol Ha’Ir interview by Danny:
Seaman defines his job as "dual and restrictive. On the one hand, I need to represent the State of Israel and its interests to the foreign media, and on the other hand, I am supposed to represent the foreign reporters to the government and to create an appropriate media atmosphere for them. Sometimes the one role supersedes and other times the other does."

Q: Which is more dominant now?

"Today there is a greater need to look out for the State of Israel's interests because we are in an emergency situation."
A shining example of Danny’s “looking out” for the Israel’s interest:
"The way the BBC is trying to portray Israel competes with the worst of Nazi propaganda," the Israeli government's press office head, Danny Seaman, told Reuters.
Or even a better one:
Danny Seaman, head of the GPO, went as far as calling the foreign press contingent in Israel "anti-Semitic."
Of course, BBC is not exactly Reshet Bet and of course the anti-Israeli rhetoric finds its way in its articles quite easily. But how using terms like “Nazi” and “anti-Semitic” about the foreign media and its representatives in Israel is going to mend their ways and open their hearts to Israel? Only Danny could answer this question.

And I have not yet mentioned one of Seaman’s towering achievements – withdrawal of the press cards from all the Palestinians employed by the foreign press agencies – including Palestinian cameraman and stringers who had worked for the foreign press for a decade or more. One may wonder whether this act stems from Danny’s belief that all of them are collaborating with the Palestinian Authority and are trained to distort the facts, to pervert the truth and to fabricate the news that will present Israel in the ugliest possible way. There is no doubt in my mind that with some, even many of them, it is true, but to leave hundreds of families without their only source of income in such a sweeping way?

So – our Danny clearly knows best what is good for the State of Israel and looks out for its interests. In his own inimitable way. But not everyone thinks so.

Even the friends of Israel have started asking question (albeit in understated, low profile way). Here is an example from the Israel Hasbara Committee (IHC):
Daniel Seaman of the GPO was reportedly accused of making political use of his authority to recommend visa extensions. ... Is there any correlation between Israeli bureaucratic obstacles and the forming of negative attitudes of Israelis among some journalists?
There is a correlation indeed; it’s a pity that no one wants to take care of the problem.

Here’s one of the most interesting (and damning) quotes that comes from Gilad Sher, the person who appointed Seaman to his current post:
Danny Seaman was your appointment?

Sher: "He was the most suitable person in the Press Office and I supported him."

Do you regret it now?

Sher: "He is implementing a punitive policy in coordination with all the government ministries. The attempt to place unnecessary limits on the foreign networks' freedom of expression, particularly those that have never been suspected of misleading, and some of which are clearly pro-Israel, is a move that is doomed to failure both on the legal level and in terms of public relations - especially in such a period as we're in now.

"The GPO is getting actively involved in general policy, which, in the long run, will not do any good for Israel's reputation around the world, even if we're basking in American support at the moment. The head of the GPO ought to exercise his judgment not only concerning the narrow realm of present government policy: He should help foreign journalists do their jobs, even if the result aren't always complimentary about Israel's actions."
A soft answer, isn’t it? But enough to present a picture of comprehensive failure.

3. So who is Danny Seaman?

If you ask Wiki, Danny is a poster boy, really. His bio and the whole career story depict a Mother Teresa of Israeli civil service. He even received the Israel Outstanding Civil Service Award (for coordinating the international press coverage of Pope John Paul II's visit to the Holy Land in March 2000, so the comparison with the saint is not just a slip of the tongue). A paratrooper and war veteran, he served as an advisor and spokesperson to a mind-boggling list of Prime Ministers. Well, this Wiki entry is, in terms Wiki uses, a stub. A stub is “an article that is too short to provide encyclopedic coverage of the subject, but not so short as to provide no useful information”. Well, my 5 shekels say that I know exactly who has written this stub.

There is only one passage from the Wiki entry I would like to quote in full:
Seaman is mentioned extensively in Stephanie Gutmann's book - "The Other War - Israelis, Palestinians and the Struggle for Media Supremacy".Chapter 10 - "His Own Private Jihad" is specifically about his efforts to curb Palestinian influence on the media coverage.
Since Danny Seaman is not being interviewed for this piece, this Wiki entry is more than sufficient to describe his bright side. .
Due to the sad fact that not a single journalist agreed to be identified as a source of information provided for this article, there are no quotes in this chapter. This fact by itself is witness enough to the fear that reigns in GPO’s (Seaman’s actually) small kingdom.
But this article by Aviva Lori in Haaretz shows enough of the revengeful and bureaucratic soul that Seaman is quite proud to display. (I must credit Danny with at least one virtue: he is not a hypocrite, the opposite is rather true – he is carrying his heart on his sleeve.)

Personal vendettas, formal bureaucratic pretexts to get rid of journalists that do not toe the line, the indiscriminate use of royal “we”, meaning “we, the State of Israel”, the Kafkaesque “routine” security nightmares in the airport: all this directly or indirectly related to the person who is supposed to smooth the way for the journalists?

Suffice to say that several journalists lodged official complaints with the Civil Service Commissioner recently.

4. Why is Danny Seaman feared by the journalists – what is the source of his power?

After several reorganizations and consistent unwillingness of all the ministers to deal with this hot potato, GPO’s chief is effectively responsible to one person in Israel – the Prime minister. Of course, the Civil Service Commissioner can say to Danny “be a good boy, Danny, do behave, please” (with the stress on “please”). But if you remember that Bradley’s point: “Rabin hated PR, Shamir hated it, Barak hates it, Sharon was intensely suspicious of it. Even Netanyahu…”, it will become clear to you that no PM ever wanted to deal neither with Hasbara nor with GPO in any of its incarnations.

Another and no less important source of Danny’s power are his contacts with security organs (chiefly Shin Bet – GSS) necessitated (at least according to his attempts to bring them into the play officially) by virtue of GPO dealing with foreign journalists and the security vetting, lest we forget and, especially, with Palestinian manpower used by these journalists.

And thus we have a seemingly small and unimportant government department that found itself in a vacuum, as far as the supervision and control are concerned. No matter how limited is the authority of such a department and how limited are its powers, these powers become absolute in the relevant domain.

On one hand, absolute power corrupts absolutely – even the angels. And Danny does not seem to be, or to have ever been an angel – unless the Wiki stub is your source. On the other hand – there are denizens of this domain, and these denizens – both Israeli and foreign journalists – are afraid. You are effectively off the map if you are a foreign journalist without a press card. And your career is crippled if you are an Israeli journalist without one and your subject is the Israeli government.

5. The Palestinian Hasbara – Arab version of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde

So how does the other side – the Palestinian propaganda chiefs – work? In a totally different way, it must be said up front:
Most foreign journalists are not fluent in either Arabic or Hebrew, rendering them dependent on a network of local Palestinian "fixers," mostly young, educated Palestinians who speak Arabic, Hebrew, and English. Palestinian fixers, who until recently have been fully accredited by Israel's Government Press Office, know their way around Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, arrange interviews with Palestinian officials, and introduce journalists to their own circle of local acquaintances. As a rule, working with a good fixer translates into getting interviews with top Palestinian leaders and moving safely around the territories. An Arabic-speaking Israeli journalist who avoids using fixers noted that most fixers trumpet the PLO narrative and terminology of the conflict, which frequently collides with established historical facts and international law. Moreover, Palestinian security forces watch carefully what is said by local residents to both foreign and local journalists.
Well, they sure do not trumpet the Danny Seaman’s narrative, nor the Zabotinsky’s ideology. No matter how much ire and indigestion it causes to our GPO.

Tells a foreign journalist:
The pampering starts after you check in the “American Colony” [an hotel in East Jerusalem beloved by most foreign journalists]. The moment you put “journalist” in your registration card, your name is passed to a fixer that will visit you and take care of all your needs: a car, a translator, all the meetings and interviews you want to set up, your travel plans and schedules. It is really a treat. And, unlike the Israeli public servants that are frequently impatient and could be rude and uncooperative, the Palestinian VIP will exude hospitality and infinite patience.
Let’s not deceive ourselves: of course, all this comes at a price. The price of lies, half-truths, deception and all the other propaganda tricks in the Palestinian inventory. And, of course, when all else fails, direct and straightforward intimidation will always work. And Mr. Hyde comes out in all his glory.
The lynching of two Israeli reservists inside a Palestinian police station in October 2000 would change the rules of Western news reporting on Palestinian violence. Nasser Atta, a Palestinian producer with ABC, recalled on Ted Koppel's "Nightline" how his cameraman was beaten and his crew prevented from filming the grisly lynchings.17

According to first-hand reports, Palestinian security forces also surrounded a Polish TV crew who were beaten and relieved of their tapes. A foreign correspondent noted that in "post-Ramallah where all good will was lost, he would be a lot more sensitive about going places in the territories." A day after the Ramallah lynchings, an Italian journalist, who had suffered a separate beating by a rioting Arab mob in Jaffa, penned a letter in English to Palestinian officials promising never to violate journalistic ethics by transmitting film to an embassy or government.
But what does our GPO have to counter the Palestinian tactics? Rudeness, bureaucracy and curtailing the basic journalistic freedoms – a "democratic" version of Palestinian Mr. Hyde? And there is no Dr. Jekyl in sight, unfortunately. Another source – Jerusalem Diaries – that is generally critical of foreign press, cannot ignore the other side of the “barricades”:
Bushinsky … pointed out another factor affecting coverage. Bushinsky explained that Arabs treat journalists far better than Israelis. Arab hospitality is legendary and Arabs will go out of their way to welcome journalists and spend hours patiently explaining their point of view. Most Israelis have such a negative view of the way Israel is portrayed in the media, that they generally are quite hostile to visiting correspondents, and don't hesitate to berate them for their coverage. So guess who's going to get the sympathetic coverage - the guy who served you Turkish coffee and invites you back to meet his daughter; or the market stallholder who calls you an anti-Semite?
Painfully clear.

6. Excuses – it is not all black and white.

It should be stated that Danny Seaman has a difficult job. Some of the journalists he is supposed to serve in his capacity as GPO chief are real pieces of work. Sleaze will not be a totally wrong word to describe their anti-Israeli opuses, full of the stuff that could boil one’s blood. From half-truths to outright lying and even to inciting Palestinian riots in the West Bank and Gaza to create a news item – the whole gamut of dirty tricks was tried, and many a reporter was caught in flagrante. Mr. Bremer who is mentioned above is a good example.

And it is not that Seaman is totally blind and does not see the problem:
Seaman has a clear understanding about how the Palestinians succeeded in seizing control of the television screens. He said that in the 1980s the Palestinians began to nurture young people who would work with the foreign press. He also alleges that all of the Palestinians who work with the media took a course in media manipulation at Bir Zeit University.

The effort paid off, if one is to believe Seaman. "For years," he explained, "the foreign reporters created a kind of romanticism surrounding the Palestinians' struggle. They adopted their point of view and their terminology." Seaman, who claims to be apolitical, said this process was exacerbated also by the "discourse in Israel”.
But what conclusions does he make of this phenomenon? Blaming “discourse in Israel” and the journalists? Taking upon himself the role of an enforcer? How could one get more absurd?

7. Conclusions

No matter whether you are of the right or of the left persuasion, whether your heart is bleeding for one case or the other (preferably both), you must ask yourself a few questions regarding the subject of this long post:

  • Does GPO do its job as defined by its limited mandate?
  • Doesn’t the expansion of GPO role as represented in the activities of Danny Seaman cause more harm than any conceivable good it is supposed to do?
  • Does a person with diplomatic abilities and tact of a Howitzer gun fill the right spot?
  • Is “His own private Jihad” compatible with the job of GPO director?
Danny Seaman has decided that his business is not just to pave the way for the journalists and to represent them before the government, but to enforce the State of Israel's point of view on the foreign (and Israeli) press. This was the starting point of the downward slide the Israeli PR is in. And worse: the way Danny has chosen to enforce this view is not by persuasion but by intimidation – the worst possible choice with the press anywhere and at any time.

From the servant of the media he (and his office) is supposed to be, Danny became a petty tyrant who acts under a dangerous illusion of unlimited power, when in reality his activities create more enemies of Israel than they gain friends.

Back to another quote, that self-fulfilling prophecy by Gilad Sher:

"The GPO is getting actively involved in general policy, which, in the long run, will not do any good for Israel's reputation around the world…
Unfortunately, this is not a prophecy anymore but a grim reality.

So what should be done about it – besides letting Danny Seaman go, which is all too obvious. The second part of Sher’s quote:

The head of the GPO ought to exercise his judgment not only concerning the narrow realm of present government policy: He should help foreign journalists do their jobs, even if the results aren't always complimentary about Israel's actions."
It is not enough to replace the GPO chief, far from it. The whole issue of Hasbara should become one of the chief concerns of our government. Aside of a reorganization that will put GPO under a permanent supervision and promise its increased funding, manpower and ability to really provide the required service, a clear definition of its scope of activities should be worked out. The situation where the GPO chief decides to venture into areas that are not really his business at all should be prevented at any cost, seeing the results of such ventures.

And, of course, choosing a right person for the job this time is vital. Just as an example of a suitable candidate, a quote from a comment to the same Bradley’s article:
Israel has plenty of talented, well - spoken (fluent in English!) people who could effectively & respectfully represent Israel & her positions. People like Alon Pinkas, for example, the former ambassador to NY.
Yes, that would be my first choice too.

But the most important thing is for our government to realize that the sooner we start to deal with PR seriously and professionally – and that includes excellence in service of foreign and local journalists – the more chances we got to turn the tide of bad news.


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