Sunday, 13 July 2008

Politically Correct

His boundless energy, capacious memory and famed impartiality, have made him a household name. Political reporter and commentator, Yaron Deckel, reflects on 20 years of journalism, before setting off to Washington. Exclusive interview with Ori Golan.

For someone whose face appears almost nightly on our television screens, whose authoritative voice is instantly recognizable, and whose name has become synonymous with national politics, Yaron Deckel, is remarkably unremarkable. There is nothing flashy about his appearance, he has a mild manner of speech, and those who know him say that he is the antonym of vanity. His home – a modest flat in Tel Avis (with no elevator) – is his castle; few people have been inside and fewer still have interviewed him in his own surroundings. This is the second personal interview he has given in 20 years.

"I cannot see why anyone wants to know about me" he muses. "I am just a political reporter." Modesty apart, Deckel is not just a political reporter. His reports send shock waves, set the national agenda and inform the entire country. His analysis is quoted by Reuters CNN, the New York Times and even the Jakarta Post. Foreign ambassadors seek his advice; and he briefs the team on Ted Koppel’s Night Line. He commands immense respect from the top political brass all the way down to the rank-and-file. Elderly ladies stop him in the street to tell him how much they enjoy listening to him; and people from across the country send him letters and faxes. At 38, with 17 years of political reporting behind him, Deckel is an insatiable source of fascination and mystery to many.

To many, Deckel is a bastion of neutrality. He is one of the few political reporters whose analysis is totally non-partisan and whose professional integrity remains undisputed. He hauls over the coals politicians from the entire political spectrum, with equal zeal. His irreverence to politicians has become his hallmark. He described Dalia Itzik as the 'elastic girl of the year', and in a radio interview he dubbed Benjamin Ben Eliezer (Fuad) 'an inveterate chatterbox’. Of Ehud Barak he once said: "He cannot pass anything in the Knesset - not a president, not a budget and not gardening and watering legislation." It infuriates and offends them and yet they still admire him. He is on first-name terms not only with Prime Ministers and Knesset members, but also with their advisers, drivers and spouses. Lilly Sharon, late wife of the Prime Minister, once spotted him in Paris and invited him to have a cup of tea with her. After that, each time they would meet, she would reminisce with him over their tea in Paris.

On a personal level Deckel remains a dark horse. Neither his work associates, nor his friends know where his own allegiance lies, or his political leanings. Veteran military reporter, Carmella Menashe, explains: "I have known Yaron now for over 18 years and I consider him a wonderful colleague and friend. We have been through a lot together, but I still have no idea which party he votes for or who his sources are." Deckel himself sheds no light. "Apart from being a reporter I am also a private individual and I keep my personal thoughts to myself" he summarizes blandly, curtailing any further discussion on this topic.

His blandness is his professional trademark. However, in a social setting, say close friends, Deckel has a wonderful sense of mischievous humor: he imitates politicians’ voices, sends flowers anonymously and doles out absurd nicknames to his friends. He is said to have once sent a pair of slippers in an envelope to a friend in Britain who complained of the cold. Rumor has it that you’ve not seen dancing until you’ve seen Deckel dance.

Deckel, of course, refuses to comment.

Aside from his impartiality, Deckel's success hinges on his vast pool of sources. They supply him with tip-offs, quote him conversations held behind closed doors, and fax him confidential internal memos.
A few years ago, he got whiff of a secret meeting that was scheduled with the Defense minister. Staff in the Defense Ministry would not divulge any information; MKs, secretaries and spokesmen, all pleaded ignorance. And yet, half an hour before the scheduled meeting Deckel appeared with his microphone to greet a dumbfounded defense minister and quiz him on the nature of the meeting. How did he do it? He laughs. "Let’s just say that a tip-off from a certain minister's driver proved very useful."

A colleague once commented that the number of leaks Deckel’s telephone receives requires a plumber on permanent standby.

"I don't for one moment elude myself that they do it out of love" says Deckel, "It is a symbiotic relationship: they need me to relay their message through the media and I need them to give me information to analyze the political situation. The politician's job is to obfuscate. Mine is to elucidate." And it is his elucidation, in simple prose and a clear diction, which politicians and ordinary citizens rely on.

Ora Namir once began a telephone conversation with him by saying: "I am calling to ask you how I am today". In 1999, shortly after the elections, MK Dalia Itzik maintained that she had received a promise from Prime Minister Barak to get the communication portfolio. On the day government was formed, Itzik woke up to hear Deckel announce on the radio that she would in fact be given the environment portfolio and not the communication portfolio. She almost fainted from shock and when Barak tried to contact her, she refused to take his calls.

With his mobile telephone and beeper permanently switched on, Deckel is contactable around the clock and has been known to bounce into action and produce journalistic 'scoops' in the middle of the night. "I have already interviewed while making jam; reported on a political event while parking my car and once I took part in a debate while eating falafel in the market.
Does he have a bed time when everything switches off? He chuckles at the idea.

A former cabinet secretary recalls calling Deckel at home to update him on a long meeting with Shas leaders shortly after it ended, at 2am. Later that morning Deckel called him to ask if they had spoken during the night, saying he couldn't remember any of the conversation and would he mind repeating everything again.

"Yes, it does happen" smiles Deckel, "I sometimes work very long hours and my energy flags. I was once chatting to a spokesman from National Relgious Party, very late at night. All of a sudden I hear shouts from the receiver: 'hello? hello! are you there?' I had fallen asleep during the conversation".

Although Deckel rubs shoulders with the political elite, he is a very private person who has managed to keep out of the gossip columns and does not capitalize on his celebrity status. "I make a clear distinction between my professional and my private life" he explains matter-of-factly "I don't socialize with politicians, or attend their family celebrations." He did, however, attend a family gathering at the Deri’s.

"That was something else," he rebuts. "A few years ago I broadcasted a report which insinuated that Deri was trying to replace Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair with his own attorney Dan Avi-Yitzhak. Deri was furious and called me to say that it was ‘all over between us’. For over four months he refused to see me or talk to me. Then one day, I received an invitation from him to attend his son's Bar Mitzvah celebration. I decided to go because it was a golden opportunity for us to mend fences, which we did."

Deckel, who holds a BA in Criminology and Political Science, and an MA in Media and Political Science, was born in Tel Aviv, but grew up in Kiryat Ono. He has a younger sister who is currently finishing a PhD in psychology at an American University. His mother was head teacher of a high school, and his father is a sub-editor in Maariv. Deckel was 15 when his mother died of cancer. At high school he changed the English spelling of his surname. "Mrs Kiva, my English teacher advised me to spell it with 'CK', to avoid it being pronounced Dekkle", so I adopted this spelling." He excelled in physics and mathematics but, ironically, just scraped a pass mark in his 'citizenship' exam.

Before finishing high school he sent a post card to Galei Zahal, the army radio station, requesting to become an anchorman. Shortly afterward he was invited to take part in a pre-military service course at the radio station. At the end of the course Deckel was told him that he would not make radio anchorman because his voice was not suitable. Instead, he was offered a post as a reporter. In 1982 he joined Galei Zahal as police and court reporter.

As a young reporter he was assigned the Hava Yaari murder case. In the early part of the investigation Deckel reported that a testimony had been given at a police station which implicated Yaari in the murder. It later emerged that the claim was unfounded. Yaari's husband, journalist Ehud Yaari, was furious and complained to the staion manager.

"It was possibly one of my worst blunders", admits Deckel, "I was deliberately misled by my source. Since then I have become extremely cautious before I commit anything to broadcast. I check and double check my source and if I am not convinced that it's reliable I will drop the story."

His most spontaneous journalistic broadcasts occurred when he was walking home from the radio station. On reaching the promenade he noticed a huge plume of fire coming out of one of the hotels. He immediately called the station from a nearby public telephone, was put on air, and gave running commentary on the fire and the evacuation of the residents.

In 1985 Deckel was appointed the station's political reporter, a beat he has held on to ever since. He won the IDF Radio Commander prize twice: Once for his weekly political corner and the second for the coverage of the 'Stinking Maneouvre' of 1990 when Labor sought to replace Likud as leader of the government coalition.

When Channel Two was formed in 1994, Deckel joined the news team as the political reporter. "It was a frustrating time," he recalls. "Today the situation is very different. Channel Two has evolve and improved: it now has varied outlets for news and greater scope for analysis. But back then there was no build-up of political news, no development of a political story. And if there was a big item, it had to be summed up in 2 minutes". 20 months later, he threw in the towel and signed a joint contract with Kol Israel and Channel One, working as political reporter for the one and senior political commentator for the other. "In retrospect", he reflects, "I can say that his has been the right move." For the news team, Deckel has become their trump card. He was the first journalist to expose the deal in which Tsomet merged with Likud for the 1996 elections, and he pulled a spectacular scoop when he announced President Weizman's resignation, taking everyone by surprise. This journalistic success was closely followed a serious slip up when he covered the parliamentary vote for the country’s next President.

Throughout that period Deckel predicted that Moshe Katzav did not have 'a chance in hell' of being elected. "All the information we were getting pointed to Peres winning the vote. A week before, I sat with Katzav in the Knesset. He took out a piece of paper and wrote; despite predictions I will be the next President of Israel. Later, when the results became known, and Katzav was voted President, I showed it on television and apologized both on radio and TV."
Viewers wrote to Deckel to commend him for his integrity and for taking responsibility over his mistaken prediction. His bosses, however, were less impressed. Radio manager Amnon Nadav, sent him and commentator Hanan Crystal an official letter of reprimand.

"It is an absolute disgrace that a senior reporter like Deckel should be reprimanded for getting a wrong prediction" says a work colleague who was privy to the letter. "This speaks volumes about the current climate here." Asked if he was offended by the letter, Deckel replies curtly: "I’d rather not comment on the internal politics at my workplace".

On Thursdays Deckel presents Hakol Diburim, the current affairs radio program, restoring its original popularity after the program’s custodian, Shelly Yechimovitz, left Kol Israel on account of ‘internal politics’.

In political interviews, Deckel has two distinct advantages over all other presenters: his archive and his memory. The first is vast, the latter legendry. Deckel recalls dates and places of declarations, promises, threats, and confessions made by politician years ago. And when the time is right, he also knows where to find recordings of them in his meticulously filed archive. In an interview with Yossi Sarid, shortly after his party joined the coalition with Shas, Deckel whisked out a recording in which Sarid states categorically that his party would never join a government coalition with Shas. After playing the recording, Deckel turned to Sarid, and asked: "embarrassing, isn't it?" During the 1996 election campaign Netanyahu pledged that, if elected, he would not meet with Arafat but send his foreign Minister. Deckel broadcast a recording of this pledge, shortly after Netanyahu met with Arafat, a ploy that riled Netanyahu.

But Deckel makes no apology for his tactics. "Politicians often say A and then they say B. I try to pick up on that, confront them with the facts, and ask them to account for their change of tack. If it makes them sweat a little, or writhe in their chair, it means I am doing my job. I once taunted David Levi, whose 'flexible' ideology and ever-changing loyalty is famed, that I would show him my 'Levi archive'; each time I open it, hundreds of tape come falling out" he smiles.

One of his recent memorable interviews on Hakol Diburim was with Judi Nir-Moses- Shalom, wife of Finance minister Silvan Shalom, who charged that Sharon prefers to stroke his lambs in his farm, to his role as prime minister- a comment which sent ripples in the media.
Does he think women should be involved in politics?

"Definitely. It is a great shame there are not more women in politics. I don't think that to make military decisions you have to be a high-ranking male officer. We live in a macho society. The inclusion of more women in politics would bridge social gaps and foster a more egalitarian society in the country. Limor Livnat, for example, has made enormous contribution to Israel's political life. Pnina Rosenblum is another example. She is an incredibly hard-working woman who comes from the business industry. I am all for affirmative action to encourage women to participate in politics."

Does he have a defining moment in his journalistic career? "Yes", he answers unhesitatingly. "November 4th 1995, Kikar Malchei Yisrael." He is referring, of course, to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's. Deckel was the last person to interview Rabin, minutes before he was gunned down.

"It was the first time that a government had organized a rally for itself and Rabin was not keen on the idea. He was concerned there would not be a good turn out. In the end, it was a massive event. I was in the square when I spotted Rabin hugging Peres which - in itself - was an event. It was the end of the rally and I approached them with my microphone. I asked them about the hug, Peres retorted in his dry humor: are you writing a romantic novel? Rabin said: "reality changes, the world changes, and we, too, change."

"I started walking home when I got a beeper informing me that shots were heard in the square. I ran back immediately. By the time I realized what had happened Rabin had been evacuated. I summoned a television crew and sprinted to Icholov, An hour later, Eitan Habber came out with his unforgettable words announcing Rabin's death. I was staggered. The anchormen in the studio were also dumbfounded. They sent the broadcast back to me. In the midst of my disarray I had to keep broadcasting. This was undoubtedly the most difficult experience in my career. To this day I don't recall what I said. I have never viewed this broadcast: I don't have the courage."
"Rabin was a unique politician. We had good relations. He was credible and I trusted his word. I was also on good terms with his wife, Leah who was an excellent interviewee: provocative, eloquent and intelligent. On every level, it was a difficult time for me."

If the opportunity to interview Yigal Amir, Rabin's assassin, came his way, would he do it?"Most certainly," he replies, "There is a lot of journalistic value in such an interview. I would not conduct it 'live' but would carefully edit it. There are lots of questions I would put to him."
So what five questions would he put to him?

Deckel pauses for a moment and then responds: "Do you regret the killing? Do you feel you have achieved your goal? How many bullets did you shoot? Who shouted 'blank blank'? Are you at peace with yourself and do you sleep well at night?"

Last week Deckel was nominated the next Washington Correspondent for Channel One, replacing in August Gil Tamari, the current correspondent who has been there for four years. It is a post, which, by his own admission, he has coveted for a while.

Asked whether he will miss his status as the country’s top political reporter, Deckel looks pensive. "I will certainly miss certain aspects of the job. But I am ready for a new challenge. Israel is a highly politicized country and it would be nice to step outside for a while and try something new."

Deckel speaks English fluently and this is far from his first stint abroad. He has participated in numerous journalistic programs, which took him to Japan, Germany, and Britain. In 1993 he spent four months with the World Press Institute program in Minnesota. He received a scholarship by the British Council on two separate occasions, first in 1996, then in 1999, to study at Oxford University where he wrote two outstanding dissertations, one on Spin Doctors in British Politics, the other on the relationship between Politics and Television in Britain.
It is yet unclear who will replace Deckel, but already a number of names are bandied around. Deckel dismisses them all as speculations. In any case, insists Carmella Menashe Deckel is irreplaceable. "There is just no one with the same work ethos, knowledge and integrity. No one." Will he disappear in Washington? She laughs at the suggestion. "Yaron has the qualities of a pyromaniac. You can count on him to ignite a few flames and find things to report about. As soon as he finds his feet in Washington, we will hear from him frequently. Mark my words."

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