In a complex overlooking the Jaffa Port, a group of professionals is laboring over the way Israel will be presented to the world. They are not from the government’s public diplomacy department or from some anti-BDS group: They work at the international i24News television channel, the Israeli answer to Al Jazeera. The company broadcasts worldwide 24/7 in English, French and Arabic, and although it likes to say it is beamed into millions of household, it is suffering from a lack of viewers.
Over a year ago, against the backdrop of discouraging viewership data, i24News decided to focus on two goals: Receiving a license to broadcast in English on Israeli television and establishing a local Hebrew news channel. One tactic apparently used to achieve these objectives was to flatter Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
A Haaretz investigation reveals how the independence of the channel's news department was gelded, step by step – whether by being forbidden to invite certain guests to the studio, through a host of puzzling staff departures and the cancellation of a program deemed “leftist,” to muting criticism of Netanyahu and even to providing him with a prominent platform.
“It’s not even a propaganda channel for Israel,” said one former executive. “It’s a pro-Bibi channel.”
i24News argues that it is a "balanced media outlet that offers an equal and fair platform to the entire spectrum of political parties in Israel, as well as reflecting diverse social groups."
"Not one piece of evidence was provided to show political bias in our broadcasts, only a mish-mash of slanders by former employees who, it seems, have an interest in undermining the channel’s journalistic mission,” it told Haaretz in response to this investigation.
i24News first hit the airwaves in 2013; the English-language broadcasts from its Jaffa and New York studios are its flagship projects. The two men behind i24News are French-Israeli businessman Patrick Drahi and Frank Melloul, its CEO.
Drahi’s Netherlands-based telecom group Altice, a multinational telecoms conglomerate with large mass media interests in France and the U.S., owns the channel. He also owns Israel's Hot cable company – a fact that complicates this whole story because Israeli media concentration law forbids him from also owning a news channel in Israel. Melloul – a former media adviser to the French government who was an executive at the France24 news company until Drahi recruited him – is the man who sets the tone at i24News.
A key period in i24News history began one cold day two years ago, when Melloul convened a meeting with his staff in New York. On the agenda: the possibility of enacting a law that would allow the channel to broadcast to Israelis. “We need to be softer toward Netanyahu,” the CEO was quoted as saying, “less critical.”
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Even before that meeting i24News was not known, to say the least, for being particularly biting or critical vis-à-vis Israeli policy. It provided fairly favorable coverage, but the change now being requested of it was not related per se to the country, but to its leader.
Some of the employees at the company were stunned by the new directives, which they said were quite specific. They were told to give "dry" accounts in their reports of the corruption cases involving Netanyahu.
“We were told that as long as there was no indictment against him, it wouldn't be fair or ethical” to act otherwise, one of the staffers told Haaretz. And Melloul didn’t suffice with general guidelines: From that moment on, he became increasingly more involved in the content his employees produced. There were fewer critical reports against Netanyahu and fewer studio guests identified with the left, the workers said. The CEO reportedly told his confidants at the time: “All I need from them is to [allow us to] broadcast in Israel,” referring to Netanyahu and his associates. “I won’t need them after that.”
Thanks to the resulting changes in i24News's style of reporting, Melloul and Drahi obtained their first objective. In August 2018, they received the desired approval that paved the way for the English-language channel to broadcast on Hot in Israel. But two incidents that occurred shortly thereafter made it clear to the employees that the meddling in content was far from over.
'They can go to hell'
On the day he got the good news from the Communications Ministry, Melloul himself reminded everyone of the company's overarching goal. “Our next challenge,” the CEO said, “is to establish a fourth channel in Hebrew.” He told his staff: “All I need is to broadcast in Hebrew. After that, they can go to hell.”
A few days later, the right-wing Basheva weekly published a critical article about the channel. Its report stated that i24News, which was ostensibly providing favorable coverage of Israel, was giving airtime to journalists from the Gaza Strip, offering a platform to radical leftists, recruiting staff from Al Jazeera and publishing articles about the premier's wife, Sara Netanyahu. Employees said that the article spurred Melloul, who already had his next goal in mind, into applying even more pressure on them to avoid criticizing the prime minister. That pressure mounted as the April 2019 election approached.
People who worked at i24News as well as some who continue to work there have provided Haaretz with detailed information about the extent of the influence and the directives coming from above. One of the policies involved banning interviewees who had regularly been hosted in the studios.
“The Prime Minister’s Office doesn’t like the appearances of journalist Amir Oren,” Melloul announced at one closed meeting. Oren, a former defense and military affairs commentator at Haaretz who is now with the Walla news website, has been one of the biggest critics of Netanyahu and his family.
“Oren understands everything,” one i24News staff member said. “He is totally knowledgeable, has an excellent command of English and, crucially, lives nearby.”
However, some sources at the company said Oren was a “red flag” for the Netanyahus, and thus Melloul issued a clear directive to limit his interviews on English-language shows – until he was eventually banned altogether. (Oren continues to appear on Arabic-languages programs, but this is apparently less important to i24News management, whose "display window" is the English-language channel.) “The orders were unequivocal,” said one employee. “No more bringing in Amir.”
Not everyone objected to this, but one person who did express stiff opposition to the changes was the manager and chief editor of i24News's English-language channel at the time, Adar Primor – a former foreign news editor at the Haaretz Hebrew edition and former editor-in-chief of its English edition. Staffers say that while Primor insisted, for example, on Oren’s importance, he could not stand up to Melloul.
Around that same time, last winter, another figure was declared persona non grata at i24News: Odelia Carmon, Netanyahu’s former media adviser. She had participated in a panel as part of the program “The Spin Room” in December, which discussed a Facebook post by the premier's outspoken son, Yair, that led to his account being shut down for 24 hours. “There are no terror attacks in Japan or Iceland because there are no Muslims there,” Netanyhu junior had written in his post.
Carmon, who usually refrained from discussing matters involving the Netanyahu family, made an exception this time. “He is the product of two egomaniacal and egocentric parents,” she said on the show. “I have a lot of compassion for Yair because he was raised by two parents focused on themselves. Still, I expected him to have a little more class. Even if he is a right-wing racist, I hoped he would grow and be a more intelligent guy… he acts like an idiot.”
Later, she added, “I don’t think the prime minister has much control over him, the way he lacks any control over his wife. None.”
Some official related that after the show aired, Melloul ordered that Carmon not be invited again. He told the person in charge of explaining his decision to say the source of the request was Yair Netanyahu. “Bibi’s son yelled at me, asking why we brought in Odelia Carmon,” Melloul said behind closed doors. “I am asking to take her off.”
In an official response, i24News later stated, “Yair Netanyahu never spoke or raised objections with Mr. Melloul regarding the broadcasts or hosting Ms. Carmon.”
This was not the first time “The Spin Room” was mentioned regarding the distancing of a “problematic” personality at the channel. The show and its host, journalist Ami Kaufman, have actually been a target for some time.
Before the changes began in the newsroom, Kaufman's show was considered i24News's flagship, and was broadcast daily during prime-time evening hours in the United States. The format was fairly simple. Each time three or four subjects were discussed by various guests – from the right and the left.
“The program won a great deal of admiration, but Kaufman was labeled by Frank (Melloul) as a leftist,” one employee said.
The views espoused by Kaufman, who in the past has worked at Haaretz and Calcalist, and cofounded the 972 internet magazine, have something to do with that: He is considered to be very critical of Israeli policy in the occupied territories. When Kaufman was still hosting his show, he refrained from expressing a political position; apparently, his past caught up with him.
At one stage, the broadcasts were reduced to twice a week. Then, in July, “The Spin Room” was taken off the air. Shortly beforehand, Yair Netanyahu posted a Twitter survey asking which channel was perceived as the most anti-Semitic: i24News or Al Jazeera. After one commenter wrote that it was clearly Al Jazeera, Netanyahu responded, “Don’t be so sure.”
Coincidentally or not, about an hour before that tweet was posted, there was a rerun of “The Spin Room” from the previous evening, during which there was a discussion about an article by Hagar Shezaf, in Haaretz’s weekend magazine, about documents the Defense Ministry was hiding about the expulsion of Arabs in 1948.
“It’s a story that comes from darker times or darker countries,” Kaufman said, presenting the issue and introducing Shezaf as an interviewee. “It’s an amazing story,” he later added.
There was also criticism about this item from within the newsroom, too. One staffer quoted acting editor Tami Harel as saying, that “the program was super-super problematic, both from the standpoint of the subject and from that of the interviewees.”
The fact that others appearing on the show had a right-wing agenda didn’t help. Nor did the picture senior editors presented to Melloul: namely, that most of the guests on Kaufman's show were from the right and leftists were complaining that he often attacked them from the right. The program’s fate was sealed, and Kaufman was out.
An i24News representative told Haaretz that the reason for canceling "The Spin Room" was that “it produced low ratings and it was difficult to bring in many guests from across the political spectrum on a frequent basis, and not because ‘the host was tagged a leftist.’” As proof, the person added, “Kaufman was asked to stay on as a news presenter on the channel.”
Kaufman himself thought that offer was equivalent to a demotion and did not return.
The exclusion of certain studio guests didn't only occur in i24News headquarters in Jaffa, as evidenced by Prof. Alon Ben-Meir, a senior fellow at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. Ben-Meir was a fairly regular guest on shows the company filmed in the United States, and commented on issues related to the Middle East. However, in February, producers at the channel received new orders.
“One day they told us not to invite Ben-Meir ever again,” one source said. “They told us, ‘Frank doesn’t want him on the air. He isn’t fair toward Netanyahu, and the people in Tel Aviv don’t like his voice.’ We wondered if it was because he had criticized Netanyahu and one of the senior editors in the United States said expressly that this was the reason.”
“I appeared there, sometimes twice a week. They would call to invite me on all the time and then it stopped all at once,” Ben-Meir told Haaretz. “When I tried to make inquiries, they told me it was because I was too critical of Netanyahu. But what could I do when that is what I think, that Netanyahu is bad for Israel – and they didn’t like hearing it. Who would have thought that Netanyahu has an impact on which guests appear on i24News?”
It’s hard to know how many people in Israel watch i24News or who they are, but it seems that one of its loyal followers is Yair Netanyahu, who incessantly criticizes the channel and its staff. In April, after he raged on Twitter about an anti-Semitic editorial cartoon depicting his father as a guide dog leading around a blind Donald Trump, i24News presenter and investigative reporter Eylon Levy responded by sharing another anti-Semitic cartoon – this one posted by Yair, deriding leftist Jewish billionaire George Soros.
“Soros is the number 1 anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish world actor,” Netanyahu tweeted in response to Levy. “People like you are what [sic] making i24News such a horrible anti-Israeli channel, that no one can find a difference in your channel's attitude to Israel compare to Al Jazeera. Such a shame. Thank god no one watches it so the damage is limited.”
Melloul, recalled some employees, did not like the clash and didn’t hide his distaste for it. They noted that workers who attack Netanyahu or Israeli policy have been reprimanded numerous times and have been asked to refrain from doing so again.
The CEO also ratcheted up pressure in that vein as the April election approached. One of the directives he issued was that all the prime minister’s speeches be aired live in full throughout the campaign. Moreover, a collaborative effort was launched with the Israel Hayom freebie, which included preparing joint items, publishing polls and offering a TV show to Israel Hayom editor-in-chief Boaz Bismuth along with another presenter.
Some of the staff at i24News viewed these steps as additional attempts to draw closer to the prime minister and to receipt of the coveted license to broadcast in Hebrew. Management, for its part, looks back on this differently. One top executive explained that the moves related solely to the campaign and election, and achieved the main goal of garnering maximal exposure among the Israeli public.
Who initiated these moves? Editor Bismuth told Haaretz that it was he that pushed for the partnership, not i24News. He called claims that it was meant to tighten ties to Netanyahu “a bunch of idle chatter.”
In any event, in addition to his work on the show, Bismuth has been seen quite frequently in the corridors of i24News's offices, and is a close associate of Melloul. How close? Melloul would tell his colleagues that he was talking regularly with “Bibi” about issues related to the channel. Employees said he was ostensibly alluding to the prime minister, but they wondered if he didn’t mean another “B.B.”: Boaz Bismuth.
In response to an inquiry by Haaretz about conversations conducted by the CEO, an i24News representative said, “Melloul never spoke with the prime minister or his family about regulatory issues or the content of i24News, and the prime minister and his family never intervened in the channel’s work.”
The company added, “There is no connection nor will there be any between the type of coverage the prime minister gets and the receipt of [broadcasting] licenses in Israel.”
Regarding the question of whether i24News has recently changed its approach toward Netanyahu, staffers mentioned at least one case, on the eve of the election, in which the collaboration with Bismuth produced tangible results: Netanyahu began to grant interviews in his home to various media. They said Bismuth was the middleman who brought i24News people into the residence on Jerusalem's Balfour Street.
The atmosphere in the home was tense, it was recalled. After the interview, Melloul told one of the channel’s employees that Sara Netanyahu had reprimanded him. “Your channel is leftist,” she said to his face. Yair Netanyahu was also there; some of those present remember that he tried to get his father to end the interview quickly.
An associate of the prime minister said that the reason for cutting it short was related to scheduling issues, but one i24News staff member said that Sara and Yair asked the premier in advance to decline to give the interview, and it only went ahead thanks to the intervention of Bismuth, who was also there. In any event, the interviewee did not have to field any difficult questions.
“We seem to be in Messianic times,” Bismuth said in response, “when an Israel Hayom editor receives credit he doesn’t deserve.”
The collaboration with Israel Hayom wasn’t the only apparent attempt by i24News to get closer to the right. At the height of the election campaign early this year, Melloul tried to recruit TV anchor Lital Shemesh, who was then working at the commercial TV Channel 20. This was unsuccessful, due partly to the objection of senior editors to the format Melloul was proposing.
It appears that tensions between Melloul and i24News's editors was quite common at the time. In the line of fire was editor-in-chief Primor, who objected strenuously to any interference in matters relating to content. Then, a few months ago, when things came to a boil, Primor had to step down. He was replaced by Harel, a veteran editor at the channel.
Shortly after the changeover, Harel issued unusual instructions – to stop broadcasting a repeating loop of a particular story. Its content included transcripts from the investigations against the prime minister, as revealed that evening on TV Channel 12. “Frank (Melloul) is demanding that we take it off the air,” announced Harel from the desk, according to one of the channel’s employees.
Two months later, staff members were told not to report on a secret recording of a conversation between then-Minister of Communications Ayoub Kara and Netanyahu (who was heard sharply criticizing Kara), which had been broadcast on TV Channel 13. Hours later, in the wake of the political tempest sparked by publication of the story, the order was changed, with senior editors requested to report on it in a laconic and dry fashion.
Behind the scenes
While i24News's news department under Melloul was changing its image in an apparent attempt to placate Netanyahu, behind the scenes Drahi was pursuing other avenues in order to launch a Hebrew version of the channel. The trouble he encountered stemmed, as mentioned, from the fact that the law regulating communications in Israel forbids owners of cable and satellite-based platforms from owning news channels (in order to prevent overlapping interests and ownerships). Since Drahi is the controlling shareholder at Hot, he had a problem. Moreover, part of the agreement that allowed the merger of cable companies in the early 2000s included prohibitions relating to content.
This is why i24News content had never aired on Israeli TV networks, and the reason Drahi said new legislation was needed. The first hurdle – permitting the channel to broadcast in English on Hot – was overcome easily thanks to privately initiated and target-specific legislation, spearheaded by former MK Nachman Shai (Zionist Union), which was passed by the Knesset despite the opposition of the Justice Ministry.
Subsequently, efforts at i24News were focused on the main objective: getting the Hebrew channel up and running. In November 2018, Drahi met then-Minister of Communications Kara and his director general Netanel Cohen in Tel Aviv, to present his vision of establishing the channel with the help of a big investment – something not yet seen in Israel. This wasn’t a meeting for the purpose of getting acquainted: A few months earlier, Kara had toured the new i24News studios in New York. So, the Tel Aviv meeting was a bit strange. There were no professionals or legal experts present. Ostensibly, it dealt with Hot’s investment in optical fibers, but Drahi used the opportunity to clarify that he was planning on diverting funds to establish the local Hebrew-language channel.
The attempts by i24News to influence political echelons continued after David Amsalem was appointed minister of communications, on July 1. He took i24News’s requests seriously. The first media person that Amsalem met with, a week after his appointment, was i24News CEO Frank Melloul. Thereafter, Amsalem instructed officials in his ministry to help advance legislation that will enable i24News to launch its Hebrew channel. A similar request by Amsalem relates to Channel 20, which also seeks a change in legislation in order to be included in the free Idan Plus (digital terrestrial television) platform and to obtain the prestigious channel 14 designation that was relinquished by the now-defunct Channel 10.
Amsalem refused to talk to Haaretz directly regarding these issues, referring to his ministry’s response, according to which "the minister and the director general meet frequently with players in the communications market as part of their role to improve services to consumers in Israel. Any attempts to link benefits to certain players are the responsibility of whoever writes these reports, with all that this implies.”
Regardless of whatever actions he has taken, in his early days as minister of communications, Amsalem was interviewed in i24News’s studio and asked about his plans, as the person responsible for overseeing regulatory matters.
“I’m only now studying the subject and the range of authority accorded to a minister,” he replied at the time. “But journalists, desk heads and directors know this – the business is unbalanced.”
According to government sources, following Amsalem’s urging, the ministries of communications, finance and justice have started discussing issues involving i24News. There has been political pressure to promote a law that would suit the i24News’s needs, the sources said.
The version being discussed includes removing limitations on dual ownership, thus allowing owners of multi-channel platforms to receive a license for a news channel. Not only would Hot be able to get a license for such a channel in Hebrew, but the Bezeq telecom group could purchase control of a commercial channel such as Keshet's Channel 12.
Due to the absence of a proper government and a freeze in the activity of the Knesset, no progress has been made in pushing this proposal forward. It will have to wait for a coalition to be formed.
i24News said in response to this article, “This channel is an international news channel which broadcasts in three languages to tens of millions of households across the world. It’s obvious that the writers of this report did not bother to watch i24News's broadcasts. When you turned to the channel, not one piece of evidence was provided to show political bias in our broadcasts, only a mish-mash of slanders by former employees who, it seems, have an interest in undermining the channel’s journalistic mission.”
It added that Arutz 7, the religious-Zionist network, also did an investigative report on i24News’s English news channel, claiming emphatically that it is a leftist channel, in contrast to Haaretz’s claim that it is a right-wing one. “The left sees it as right wing and the right views it as a leftist channel. The two reports are the best proof that i24News is a balanced media outlet that offers an equal and fair platform to the entire spectrum of political parties in Israel, as well as reflecting diverse social groups. The channel sees great importance accruing to the right to provide viewers with the daily news in a balanced and fair manner, and it regards the profession of journalism with the utmost respect.
“The channel's broadcasts in Israel are a result of private legislation initiated by MK Nachman Shai, who is not one of the prime minister’s associates. The law was passed unanimously by all parties, after meeting the strict requirements of the regulator. The channel will continue to adhere to these requirements. We regret the attempts to tarnish the work of i24News journalists and directors and to sully the channel’s vision of launching a first Hebrew news-only channel.”
The Netanyahu family reacted by saying that it was not surprising that “instead of demanding answers and fully exploring the tough questions that arise from the investigation of the prime minister and others, questions that raise suspicions of criminal activity that have no place in a democratic country – Haaretz rushes to forcibly foist new and baseless accusations upon the Netanyahu family.
"This story is full of lies about the family, meant to perpetuate the negative image you try so hard to attach to it. Regardless of the baseless claims you make, the last time we checked it was permitted in Israel to express an opinion and to voice criticism – even on the part of Mrs. Netanyahu.”
For its part, the Hot cable company stated that there is no connection between Hot and i24News or its content: “i24News is an independent body and totally distinct from Hot.”