The Triumph of Populism

MKs and the media will continue to go for gimmicks and sensationalist headlines rather than serious issues.

"Everyone told me I had to make a statement to the media immediately, but I decided not to talk to the media for five months so I could learn before I speak. I see politics as a serious profession and I'm not built for gimmicks," said Yulia Shamalov-Berkovich at the Eilat journalism conference last week.

Brave, unusual words. But who is this Shamalov-Berkovich? How many readers have heard of her?

She is a Knesset member, one of the 120 who determine our fate. She joined the Kadima faction at the beginning of July, replacing Haim Ramon.

Shamalov-Berkovich took part in the panel discussing media-political relations, beside Likud MK Miri Regev. Both are new parliamentarians, and both are young at 44. But while everyone knows Regev, Shamalov-Berkovich is lost in the crowd and the media are not the least interested in her.

As veteran media adviser Roni Rimon bluntly put it when speaking on the panel: "Miri's place in the next Knesset is assured, while Yulia has no chance because the media have a monopoly on the election of MKs."

I spoke to Shamalov-Berkovich after the conference. She says her agenda is "Zionism, love of Israel and restoring Israelis' faith. We must be a light unto the nations, a special state." You have to admit that these are refreshing words, the likes of which we haven't heard for a long time.

Shamalov-Berkovich has grave complaints about the media, their lack of seriousness and preference for sensationalist headlines. She says journalists incorporate commentary and spin into news reports, while she wants the media to convey information objectively. Commentary should be distinguished from news reports.

Shamalov-Berkovich admits that MKs cooperate with the sensationalist media. "They know what the media want and provide them with gimmicks instead of serious content. We live in an era in which the packaging is important, not the content," she says. "But politicians who make decisions on the basis of how will it look in the media are betraying the public's trust."

Regev said during the discussion that "politics is not a profession and an MK must push things he believes in."

But if we examine Regev's actions we see she believes mainly in standing out in the media. She knows that journalists seek conflicts and prefer the interesting to the important. If it is possible to blast the prime minister while endearing herself to the public by using base, populist means, she'll do it. Anything to get maximum exposure.

Thus Regev criticized the value-added tax on fruits and vegetables with foaming rage, although there's no difference between a tomato and a cucumber on the one hand and bread and milk on the other. She also lashed out against the drought tax, although it proved effective in saving water.

The system for primary elections must be driving the MKs mad. They are forced to seek the lowest common denominator with simple, populist messages, while competing to ingratiate themselves with the public. Each tries to dish out more benefits and ward off more taxes, because that's what the public likes.

The result is that good people are not willing to enter politics and standards for MKs are declining. So maybe we should change the primary system?

During the conference I happened to talk to Likud MK Ofir Akunis, chairman of the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee. "You know it was right to impose VAT on fruits and vegetables, and that the drought tax was right," I said to him. "So why didn't you express these views?"

Akunis smiled at me. "Let's say I agree with you that these views are right," he said. "If I had said so, do you know what would have happened to me in the Likud primary? At best I would have reached the 60th slot" on the party list.

In other words, populism will continue to triumph. MKs and the media will continue to go for gimmicks and sensationalist headlines rather than serious issues. And there will be more Miri Regevs in the Knesset than Yulia Shamalov-Berkoviches.