Faced with financial restraints, major changes in the collection of the license fee, proposed technical alterations and programming challenges, the director-general of a country’s public broadcasting network, in deciding to close a broadcast channel, last week declared:
“The organization has had to look for savings – so that we, like everyone else in these difficult economic times, can live within our means. My concern... is to ensure that the quality of what we do is not compromised along the way. We are here to produce exceptional and distinctive programs and services...but... something has to give. And that means hard choices. But there is one choice I will never make – and that’s to sacrifice quality...Reconciling these two aims – financial and strategic – has led us to this difficult conclusion.”
No, that was not the reaction of the heads of the Israel Broadcasting Authority to the Landes Report and the decision by Communications Minister Gilad Erdan to close down IBA TV and then reopen it.
That was Danny Cohen, the head of BBC television.
The difference says it all. The Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) is outstanding in one aspect – the dislike it has generated within the Israeli public.
Of course no one likes to pay taxes, but the IBA took its tax collection to extremes. On the one hand, 40 percent of the population did not pay the TV tax while on the other, those unfortunate enough not to belong to the Arab or haredi (ultra-Orthodox) sector often found themselves faced with hungry lawyers, paid by the IBA, collecting outrageous amounts of back payments from those who found it difficult to pay to start off with.
The TV tax is but one symptom of the malaise at the IBA. The central problem of this organization is that for years it always knew better.
The IBA was not a public broadcasting service in the true sense of the word. It did not feel compelled to try to understand what the media consumer in Israel really needs or wants. Consider a simple example – classical music. IBA radio has a classical music channel. Has anyone within the IBA ever asked the public whether it is satisfied with the classical music offered on this channel? Is there too much opera or too little? Too much in-between chatter or too little? Is there sufficient modern music or do we want more of Mozart, Bach and Schubert? To the best of our knowledge this has never been done, not by Kol Hamusika or even in relation to sports broadcasts.
We have often noted in this column the narrow-mindedness which characterizes the IBA. There is only one legal commentator and his views, we all know, are leftist. The IBA never thought it necessary to balance him with someone from the Right. The IBA is not pluralistic. The political commentator has been there forever; his ideology is left-ofcenter, as we all know. The mythical long-time anchor of Reshet Bet, Arieh Golan, is immovable, even though his professional conduct is too often questionable. As documented in this column only last week, Golan is not capable of seeing an issue from all of its sides.
We also have not mentioned Keren Neubach, the social advocate who has usurped the IBA’s airwaves to support her personal views and who has very little respect or patience with those whose views are opposed to hers.
The list goes on. The IBA’s broadcasts are opinionated, narrow- minded and far from carrying out its mandate by law, which is to provide pluralistic broadcasting.
Who is to blame? Is it management? The employees? The politicians who have appointed the IBA oversight committees? In truth, all of them. The politicians used the appointments to the IBA plenum to give goodies to their acquaintances.
The management during these past 20 years did not instill good managerial practices. For example, to this very day, no one in the IBA knows the cost of an hour’s studio usage. The employees? They were always on the side which fought valiantly against modernization. The number of technical staff used for broadcasts could be drastically reduced through the use of technologically advanced equipment, but the unions would not let this happen.
Responsibility is a foreign word at the IBA. The legal department has been run by Hanna Matzkevitch for over 15 years, accruing along the way hundreds of millions of shekels in legal debts. In too many years, the IBA has had to write off losses of between NIS 50 million to NIS 100m. in payments for legal proceedings against it. Has anyone thought that perhaps this means that the legal department has failed the public and its head should resign? Of course not.
A broadcasting authority which cannot make a decision regarding whether it wants a certain type of program, such as the Zionist-oriented Latma satirical program, has lost any justification for its existence.
As was reported on these pages last week, the Landes Committee recommended sweeping changes. Channel 1 TV is to be closed down. Programming will be outsourced. Only the news department will remain and it will be unified with the radio news department. The staff is to be cut by over half, with many physical and property assets to be sold off. There are some additional very positive recommendations.
Educational TV will become part of the IBA, will no longer include independent news broadcasts and will be geared to the young generation of Israelis. The TV tax will be abolished; the budget of the IBA cut by a quarter, with the remaining funding coming from a levy on cars and from the general budget of the Israeli government.
All of this is good news, but will it be implemented? How will the new IBA really look? One of the glaring omissions of the Landes report is the demand for the IBA to become a truly public service.
Without this, we do not expect any fundamental change in the final product. There is not much in the Landes commission’s recommendations which will assure that the IBA will be a truly pluralistic and Zionistic organization. The recommendations are mostly of a technical managerial nature, focusing on structure rather than content.
Communications Minister Gilad Erdan has expressed his full support for the Landes commission’s recommendations. So has Finance Minister Yair Lapid. But is this sufficient to assure implementation? Probably not. One may expect a strong reaction coming from the IBA unions and the Histadrut. Will Prime Minster Binyamin Netanyahu back the recommendations even in the face of a general media strike? Without his firm and strong backing, nothing will happen.
Does Israel need a publicly funded broadcasting authority? We believe that the answer is yes, but only if it is public in the true sense of the word. Channel 2’s Ilana Dayan, speaking at a quickly arranged support rally for the IBA, said that “public broadcasting, unfettered by financial considerations, must be allowed to continue as a truth-seeking alternative to commercial broadcasting.”
Sadly, the IBA in the past 20 years has been a far cry from a truth-seeking alternative. The onus is on the IBA to show that it can change for the better. This is its only option.
Anything else will doom it.
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imw.org.il).