Media wars and the IDF

Media wars and the IDF

Column JN June 29 2022

Have you heard of Amnon Shefler? If it helps, he’s a lieutenant-colonel in the Israel Defence Forces.

I’m disappointed to report I’ve only now heard of Lt-Col Shefler — because he is leaving his post as the IDF’s foreign press spokesman after just a year in the job.

In my opinion, Shefler’s name ought to have been familiar to everyone, hearing him making the case for Israel in good times and in bad.

Warning signals sounded when he took the job with absolutely no media experience. His predecessor, Jonathan Conricus, who did make himself known to the media, felt this was not a drawback. He thought it was a plus for the press spokesman to be able to say “I was there in the field” as a fighter, or a pilot, or a navy SEAL.

But as any reporter could have told Conricus, those are not qualifications for one of the most difficult jobs in the communications world. As Conricus’s own predecessor, the British-born Lt-Col Peter Lerner, made clear, the first rule of being IDF spokesman is to make oneself available to the press — and, security considerations permitting, to tell the truth as far as possible. Obfuscating, hesitating, failing to provide a consistent account are not good.

Lt-Col Shefler’s Twitter feed shows he has posted nothing since March. Surely this is unacceptable: the spokesman does not operate in a vacuum, but has a team of young soldiers whose job is to provide a meaningful digital presence.

Even if Shefler himself had nothing to say, presumably his staff should have been posting — unless, of course, he told them not to.

And here we come to the huge black hole in Shefler’s short spell as IDF foreign spokesman – the utter failure to provide any coherent IDF response after the death of the Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Aklah, who was killed in May.

Meanwhile, of course, the UN’s human rights office has now declared unilaterally it was Israeli forces and not Palestinian militants who shot Abu Aklah, a long-time correspondent for Al-Jazeera.

It is not comfortable reading the IDF response: “An IDF investigation states that the journalist was in no way shot intentionally, and it is not possible to determine whether she was killed by Palestinian gunmen shooting indiscriminately in her area or inadvertently by an IDF soldier.”

So where was Amnon Shefler? Not putting his name to this sorry excuse, that’s for sure.

There is a massive sea-change going on in Israel right now, with the collapse of the governing coalition and the prospect of a fifth election in October or November. Yair Lapid, the caretaker prime minister who will oversee the latest political convulsions, most certainly has a media background.

Everyone regularly complains about Israel’s dreadful public relations and no-one wants it to spin the unspinnable. But Lapid, I hope, will pay some attention to the inglorious state of the country’s lamentable media relations.

Israel, like any country, gets things wrong sometimes. We would all respect the army and police spokespeople a lot more if they would adopt the Lerner doctrine: where possible, show up and tell the truth.

  • 17 July, 2022