Police Chief as Editor: The Real Failure Behind the 'Jerusalem District' Docudrama

Israel Police apparently had a free hand in overseeing production of 'Jerusalem District,' the controversial show in which cops planted a gun in a Palestinian's home

Right: Samar Sleiman in his basement. Right: Screengrab from the scene in Jerusalem District
Emil Salman

The Israel Police spokesman’s department was in complete control of all phases of production of a recent controversial docudrama about police work in Jerusalem, according to information obtained by TheMarker and the Movement for Freedom of Information.

Kan Broadcasting Company’s announcement in April of the premiere of “Jerusalem District," which it had commissioned from Koda Communications, raised quite a few eyebrows among Kan’s journalists. The broadcaster's PR department described the series as “a production for Kan 11 by Koda Communications, accompanied by the police spokesman’s department…, revealing unknown aspects of the work of the crime-fighting Jerusalem District police.”

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When asked what “accompanied by the police spokesman’s department” actually meant, Kan quickly claimed that this was a mistake in wording. But in fact, the police – which did not pay for production of the series (Kan paid about 6 million shekels, about $1.69 million, for the nine episodes) – treated it like a spokesman’s project in every sense.

Kan’s board of directors decided about a week ago to sever all ties with Koda after Haaretz's Nir Hasson revealed that an M-16 assault rifle presented in one of the shows as having been discovered in the home of an East Jerusalem resident had been planted there by the police. Meanwhile, it turned out that other scenes in the series had also been staged.

According to information obtained by TheMarker under the Freedom of Information Law, the contract for “Jerusalem District” between the police and Koda gave the police complete control over all phases of production – including casting, choice of the incidents documented, editing and even the trailer for the show.

For example, the contract stated that a team from the police could review all content before it was aired and veto any scene. The police could also ask to stop the filming at any time even if Koda objected. Koda also pledged not to interview any police officer, whether still serving on the force or retired, without written permission from the police.

Although the series was ostensibly an independent production – because Kan, as a public broadcaster, is not dependent on commercial considerations – the way the series was structured was copied entirely from one previously broadcast on Keshet’s Channel 12, a commercial channel. That series, called “Blues” and produced by Koda in 2016, also presented police as heroes working tirelessly in the service of Israel's citizens. In fact, the more recent Kan series was originally to have been called “Blues 2,” and was described as such in the contract.

“Instead of producing a second series of ‘Blues’ for Keshet, Koda decided to produce it for Kan, and change the name, a source involved in the production said. “The production for Kan was apparently much more worthwhile for Koda. ‘Jerusalem District’ was about the Jerusalem police. It was simply a sequel to ‘Blues,’ which was about the Tel Aviv police.

Misleading genre

"Jerusalem District" belongs to the somewhat misleading genre called “docu-reality,” whose definition is not quite clear. On the one hand it has clear documentary aspects, but on the other: elements of entertainment; the show has also been called a docudrama.

Producers of docu-reality series have more freedom to participate actively in creating scenes – which is the reason Kan’s board decided even before the scandal erupted that the series would be categorized as entertainment rather than a true documentary. Such categorization is very significant, because it ostensibly allowed the show's creators to “reconstruct” real events, as Koda’s attorney, Ronen Horovitz, claimed in a letter to Kan two weeks ago.

However, at the beginning of each show there is a clear declaration that the events depicted “occurred and were documented over the period of a year” – thus the claim that it was agreed that the series would include reenacted scenes was apparently not valid or relevant.

The failure in production of a series like “Jerusalem District” reflects a structural problem in Kan’s broadcasting model: A loophole in the law allows economic interests to supersede ever-growing slices of journalistic content, and those interests are not in accordance with the standards expected of a public broadcaster.

Kan was established with the understanding that it would resolve two marketing failures of its predecessor, the Israel Broadcasting Authority. The first had to do with news programming: Television news channels are typically controlled by wealthy entities and are thus not independent. The second problem involved the creation of local shows: Commercial channels naturally want to invest as little as possible in such productions, which do not usually receive high ratings.

To address these issues, Kan’s news department is obligated to produce all of its content itself and not purchase any from outside sources, to maintain its independence. Moreover, its television division must purchase all its content from local production companies and not produce any itself; indeed, it underwrites such shows to the tune of 240 million shekels a year.

Investigative snafus

When it came to news broadcasts or shows with significant cultural content, the model worked well. The problem started in the gray areas – investigative shows that are supposed to feature journalistic exposes of powerful elements in Israeli society. Kan buys these programs from local production companies and its news department has no control over them.

This has led to a situation whereby production companies with vested economic interests have entirely taken over Kan’s so-called documentary and investigative programming. Well-known figures who also produce shows for commercial channels, produce Kan’s documentary and investigative shows.

Koda, for example, also produced an investigative series called “Shetach Hefker” for Kan. Another example is “Zman Emet” produced by Haim Slutzky. These series are allocated generous funding (about 400,000 shekels per episode). They often showcase unusual journalistic stories, but the emphasis is not on revealing connections between money and power in the form of a genre not usually seen on the commercial channels – the precise market failing that Kan’s establishment was meant to address. In reality it is Israel's commercial TV channels that are broadcasting the leading investigative series, like Keshet Channel 12’s “Uvda” and Reshet Channel 13’s “Hamakor.”

Some productions do indeed spark widespread public discussion. Sometimes there is justification for isolating important activities undertaken by investigative shows to ensure that they don’t get swallowed up in news coverage or disappear entirely, as happened to the investigative department that Kan opened but closed due to lack of funding for more job slots. But still, such producers also frequently represent vested economic interests and wide-ranging ties to Israel’s business community or local media, and their independence is limited. In many cases, commercial interests – for example, achieving high ratings in order to win future contracts – are what guides their considerations, rather than the importance of a story to the public. “Jerusalem District” and the need to create such shows while being totally dependent on the police, is a case in point.

There are senior figures at Kan who already realize their mistake and believe that their news division should be solely responsible for its documentary and investigative series, and refrain from creating series of the problematic docu-reality genre. But as of now, the law ties their hands.

In a perfect world, the aspiration would be for the Knesset that is elected in September to change the law, but there is a concern that, in the current political climate, should there be a new discussion about the legislation, the result would be even worse.

Kan provided this statement in response: “Work on ‘Jerusalem District’ was done only with Koda Communications. We are now studying this serious incident [referring to the planting of the rifle in the Palestinian home in East Jerusalem] and all its implications, including oversight mechanisms and the place of investigative, documentary and docu-reality shows on public television."