Opinion

Why I Hope Netanyahu Wins His Libel Suit Against a Journalist

The informality of social media is no excuse for fake news.

Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu arrive for a court session on their libel suit against journalist Igal Sarna, March 14, 2017.
Moti Milrod

I hope Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wins his libel case. If he triumphs, Israel will benefit. Maybe even all of humanity. The Netanyahu-Sarna trial sounds appalling to everyone afflicted with blind disgust of the prime minister. It gives me the creeps, too, so I’ll put it differently: In the prime minister’s libel suit against journalist Igal Sarna, I hope Sarna loses. Sarna is also afflicted with blind loathing of the prime minister. That’s what prompted him to write a Facebook post about what did or didn’t happen to motorcade no. 1 on Route 1 in 2015.

Sarna has already profited. He dragged the prime minister and his wife into court and subjected them to questioning by his two wily lawyers, Avigdor Feldman and Lior Epstein. Unwilling to answer questions from investigative reporters like Raviv Drucker and Baruch Kra, the premier was forced to respond to Feldman and Epstein. When the time comes to pay the damages (if and when) the judge awards Netanyahu, Sarna will suffer a slight attack of heartburn. It will be a pinch of wounded pride – a sense that the bully won and is shaking out all the coins from your pockets. But he’ll have no trouble raising the money (if and when!) on a crowdfunding site (those masses of blind loathers) and still have money left over to squander.

We mustn’t donate to Sarna’s Headstart/Kickstarter campaign (if and when, right?). Because if (and when) Sarna loses, he will lose by right. And he has to pay a price – public more than financial – and learn a lesson.

You don’t have to be a magistrate’s court judge to understand that, even if the premier really was kicked out of the official car by his wife in the middle of the night on the highway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Sarna himself doesn’t know that for certain – and definitely didn’t know when he published his post. The unofficial admission of that fact emerged in his initial defense statement, in which Sarna differentiated between what he calls “traditional journalism” and social media. “The social network permits less stringent and less restrained reporting than traditional journalism,” he wrote in his defense. Permits in what sense? And who does the permitting?

“The report must be judged according to those rules,” Sarna added, “by dint of which the said report can also be seen as allegory, hyperbolic exaggeration, ridicule and not necessarily a precise reflection of actual reality.”

Exaggeration? Ridicule? Not actual reality? Then why, in his post describing the tale of what happened on Route 1, did Sarna emphasize that this was “an event that occurred”?

Sarna also wrote in his defense: “The self-irony of the social network, and its status as slightly reckless journalism that casts doubt on everything and doesn’t take itself completely seriously, allows writing that is parodic and allegorical. Readers of Facebook posts do not take everything that’s published there with total seriousness.”

Self-irony? On Facebook? Maybe he lives in a different Facebook universe from the one I’m familiar with. Facebook is the most militant and self-righteous arena of our time. Is it possible to maintain that people don’t treat Facebook posts with absolute seriousness? Haven’t people been fired, denounced and humiliated in the wake of Facebook posts? I’ve seen more humor on the gallows than on Facebook.

After this week’s court hearing, it’s clear that Sarna didn’t have solid information about his motorcade story. Certainly not the kind that could allow it to be published in the newspaper he works for. He heard it from a friend of someone who maybe was there. Great. We hear a lot of things from friends.

There’s no way to enjoy the influence and the tremendous power of publishing on Facebook and other social media without taking responsibility. Igal Sarna currently has about 25,200 Facebook followers (blind loathers) who are impressed by the aura of a Yedioth Ahronoth journalist, and are thirsting to hear about the exploits of the prime minister and his wife. He cannot offer them a report (“an event that occurred”) and then, after being sued, claim it was in jest (“parodic and allegorical”).

The damage from the prime minister’s expected victory – a court seal that “the left-wing media publishes false accusations” – is less than the gain. We can all benefit from the victory. The ease with which posts are published on Facebook – without editing, proofreading, legal advice, editorial considerations, etc. – is, we know, tempting. Let’s hope the court’s ruling (if and when!) will make it a little harder for the finger to hit that “Post” button.

I empathize with Sarna and his aims, but only a serious blow to the pocket and ego will teach us all a necessary lesson. It’s only a pity that the winner will be Benjamin Netanyahu.