Changing the Narrative: Media and the Russell Tribunal

by Steven Gruzd on 17 November 2011

in Articles

By Steven Gruzd and Charisse Zeifert

The recent Russell Tribunal on Palestine (RToP) presented the media challenge of walking a narrow tightrope between containment and counter-narrative. We sought to deprive the RToP of the media oxygen it craved, while pointing out its one-sidedness and unconstructive, unfair and unilateral targeting of Israel, exposing the RToP as a kangaroo court. The media would be a major front in this battle of ideas.

The RToP is a slick propaganda machine. It’s a grandiose conference that staged its third session at Cape Town’s iconic District Six Museum from 5-7 November 2011. It was masterful political theatre, aiming to sway views through the use of biased, selective and emotive information. It marshalled high-profile political activists and peace laureates – and the rarity of a Holocaust survivor condemning Israel – to convey its central message that Israel equals apartheid. With no legal force and untouchable luminaries, it would seek a win in the court of public opinion. Although two previous sessions in 2010 in Barcelona and London passed by with barely a blip, this time – with proceedings held in the very country where apartheid was invented – the RToP was poised to generate considerable publicity.

Our strategies rattled the opposing side. The Electronic Intifada website quoted RToP coordinator Frank Barat’s Facebook: “Zionists in South Africa are going mad. Every newsroom in the country has received [a] gift box and anti-Russell Tribunal material”.

More distortion by the RToP organisers. No one was panicking, embarking on character assassinations or playing the anti-Semitism card – as perhaps they’d expected. Nor did we flood the media. Our first press release was carefully targeted at only those media who attended the first RToP press conference, and our last was issued more broadly just before the “jury” read its “verdict.”

Instead, we sought to calmly dissect the RToP as pre-cooked propaganda, without standing or legitimacy to pass judgment. We also emphasised that the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires constructive, consensual dialogue and negotiation to resolve, not one-sided processes.

The press kit (not a gift box), targeted at key journalists, noted the two previous RToP flops and outlined its weaknesses. It also contained published opinion pieces by respectable writers including Benjamin Pogrund and Judge Richard Goldstone, who argued that while Israel has its problems, it is not an apartheid state and that the RToP is fatally flawed. Each kit had a yellow t-shirt, with a legally clad kangaroo named Russell declaring our key message: “No to kangaroo courts, yes to constructive dialogue.”

Russell the Kangaroo also bounced onto the social media platforms of Facebook and Twitter as part of this campaign. Using the press pack logo and slogan, this mischievous marsupial reinforced the key message that the RToP was a frivolous kangaroo court, and was also noticed (and dismissed) by the other side. Russell quickly garnered a sizeable cyberspace following (according to Facebook, more than 41,000 people read one of his posts at the height of the campaign).

As social media is so interactive, Russell could rapidly provide information, links and comments – he posted news articles and referred users to the www.russelltribunal.com website developed in collaboration with NGO Monitor in Israel that deconstructed the RToP. He also gave the community a space to express themselves, mobilise, and make light of the RToP. Russell posted videos of Rolf Harris singing “Tie me Kangaroo Down, Sport”, Barbra Streisand’s “Send in the Clowns”, and the trial scene from Alice in Wonderland. He also spread the satirical video made by SAUJS on the Russell verdict, posted pictures of students hopping around Cape Town in kangaroo suits, and responded to RToP proponents on Twitter.

An online survey of users on Facebook returned overwhelmingly positive comments. Mark Dean Brown in Cape Town noted, “It was great having good articles in one place … visual media certainly does make a difference.” Rolene Marks in Israel said, “The campaign was extremely effective and really called young people to action. It was very easy to relate to – fresh, eye-catching branding. Russell made the point in a punchy way.”

While a few felt the social media campaign was obscure, negative propaganda or “too little too late”, this hop into cyberspace has certainly altered Israel activism in South Africa, with much more to learn for the future.

In the end, virtually all news reports on RToP noted our comments and used the phrase “kangaroo court”. Key media opinion makers recognised that the Tribunal was contested terrain. Although the story played out mainly in the Cape papers for over a week, both sides were always given. Most other media paid the RToP scant attention or chose to ignore it completely. While a few offensive and venomous pieces appeared, and more may yet surface, in spite of all that it promised, the Russell Tribunal proved a non-event of little interest to the average South African, in light of our own, more compelling, politics.

This article first appeared in the South African Jewish Report on 17 November 2011

Steven Gruzd is the Senior Researcher & Diplomatic Liaison at the SAJBD’s National Office in Johannesburg.

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