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Tuesday, August 20, 2013
Upstart Israeli News Channel i24 Takes Aim at CNN, the BBC—and Al Jazeera
CEO Frank Melloul speaks to the i24 staff just before the station’s launch.(Lauren Toulila)
The headquarters of i24news, Israel’s first international news channel, is still unfinished. Outside, the glass building in Tel Aviv’s newly redeveloped Jaffa port sparkles, but inside the cavernous blue-lit newsroom, where broadcasts launched in mid-July, wires and beams are still exposed. But the ongoing construction doesn’t seem to bother the 150 journalists working around the clock to produce simultaneous newscasts in English, French, and Arabic.
It’s a mix that, by leaving out Hebrew, immediately signals i24’s ambition to speak to viewers beyond Israel’s borders. While English and French were obvious choices, the network’s founders say the decision to broadcast in Arabic was taken consciously to build an audience in parts of the world most hostile to Israel. “People will watch us because they hate us, and they will watch us through curiosity,” said Frank Melloul, the network’s Swiss-born 39-year-old CEO, who says he believes he can eventually compete with CNN, the BBC and Al Jazeera for viewers. “They will see how we cover the 70 percent of international news, and if they can trust that, then they will also trust how we cover Israeli news.”
The goal, Melloul says, is not so much to promote Israel’s interests, but to shift the media narrative by adding to the mix of stories available on television. “I want to change the story a bit,” Melloul said. Last week, when 26 prisoners were sent back to the West Bank and Gaza in the first stage of that release, the i24 website carried a detailed list of their exact names and crimes, as well as the names of their victims, many of whom were murdered civilians. “When we are talking about an incursion in Gaza, all channels start broadcasting when the IDF is going into Gaza,” Melloul said. “Nobody starts broadcasting when Israel is under attack and getting rockets. There is always a fact before an invasion in Gaza.”
Melloul has played this game before, at France24, where he was head of strategy before moving to Israel to join i24 last January. What sets i24 apart from its competitors is that it isn’t a government project: licensed in Luxembourg and so far lacking any commercial advertisers, it is chiefly bankrolled by Patrick Drahi, the media tycoon who also owns Israel’s HOT network. The new channel is privately held; its budget has been reported in the French press to run about 50 million euros, about half of what France24 cost annually and a mere drop in the bucket compared to the $1 billion launch budget for the Qatari-backed Al Jazeera.
But i24 is clearly following the path blazed by those broadcasters. “In some ways the BBC was the original, and Al Jazeera is the most prominent. But I look at France24 and at Russia Today, at CCTV in China and in America, and I think to myself that maybe every big country is going to have its own channel,” said Brian Stelter, a media reporter for The New York Times and author of Top of the Morning. “I assume that the real unique trait about this channel is the notion of them balancing out al Jazeera,” he added. “But it makes a lot of sense for this to happen because it seems like we’re going to see a lot of countries doing this.”
So far, i24’s broadcasts suggest building a news channel from scratch will be an uphill battle. This week, i24 offered the same top stories as its competitors, leading its afternoon news breaks with the potential release of Hosni Mubarak from prison and the killing of scores of Egyptian policemen in the Sinai Peninsula, just as appeared on both CNN and Al Jazeera. But while the major international news networks all had reporters on the ground, i24, which employs a few freelance stringers abroad but has yet to put any non-Israeli staff on its payroll, resorted to showing stock footage with a heavily-accented voiceover. Anchors routinely trip over English-language pronunciation and news tickers often carry typos. English-language interviews and “Crossfire”-style debates between Israeli anchors and Israeli experts often have the forced feel of a language-class exchange, with both parties sometimes struggling to find the proper words and not revert back to Hebrew.
Still, less than six weeks after its launch, executives insist the station is making an impact. The channel is available on TVs in 350 million households around the world, with satellite and cable broadcasts beaming it across Europe, Asia and much of the Middle East. An expansion onto U.S. screens is slated for as early as January 2014. Meanwhile, it reaches an unlimited number of viewers worldwide via a livestream — which has attracted a handful of hits from Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Egypt, executives say, though i24’s website has already been blocked by at least one internet provider in Tunisia.
Its staff has been drawn from established Israeli outlets, and includes print and online journalists who are learning television as they go. “I’m telling the broader story, and I’m telling it the way I think it should be told,” said Tal Shalev, the channel’s 33-year-old diplomatic correspondent who left a gig at Walla!, one of the nation’s most popular Web portals, to join i24. A native Israeli, Shalev, like nearly everyone on the English desk, delivers the news in confident but accented English. “I do think we can compete, eventually, with the bigger guys. I think we will be very worthy competitors because we’re telling the story in an interesting and unique way.”
Shalev and her colleagues insist that what they’re doing is straight news, not hasbara. “I’m not a government spokesperson, and I don’t want to be the one to provide those tools,” said Jeff Abramowitz, a pipe-smoking, straight-talking South African who serves as editor in chief of the English-language evening edition at i24. He joined the station after 15 years in Israel at the German press agency DPA. “We have no connection with the Israeli government at all,” he went on. “I have not been told by anyone how to present a story, what angle to take or how to do it.”
Adar Primor, the editor in chief of Internet and multimedia for the channel, said he has been told in plain language that i24 is not a promotional tool for the state of Israel. “This is how it was presented to me, that we would not be a propaganda site,” said Primor, a 20-year veteran of Haaretz. “We will bring forward some aspects of Israel that are not brought in other media outlets. So for me it was important to understand that we are not bringing only one side of the conflict, or one side of everything.”