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Media Comment: Turning the media around
By YISRAEL MEDAD,ELI POLLAK
26/03/2014
Given the prevalence of poor professionalism and lack of ethics in many countries, media consumers should be demanding revolutionary changes, and that goes for Israel, as well.
 
One really never knows where media revolutions begin, and why, or who or what causes the changes and how they develop. Some revolutions are positive while some are negative.

Given the prevalence of poor professionalism and lack of ethics in many countries, media consumers should be demanding revolutionary changes, and that goes for Israel, as well. Such changes have happened abroad and there is no reason why they should not also improve our media here at home.

Rebekah Brooks, the former editor of Britain’s The Sun, had to be taken to court to convince her to express regret over a variety of “errors” and “lapses of judgment.” These included a “cruel and harsh” and “personal” attack (her own words) on Labour MP Clare Short, a headline she termed a “terrible mistake.”

In another case, reporting the death of Harold Shipman with the headline “Ship ship hooray,” she owned up to “bad taste.” Another of her regrets was over the Sun’s attack on Haringey children’s services head Sharon Shoesmith following the death of “Baby P”. Brooks admitted that posting a photographer outside Shoesmith’s home was “cruel, harsh and over the top.”

Two months ago, the publisher of Florida’s St. Augustine Record, Delinda Fogel, declared that she intended “to eliminate the typos and grammar mistakes in the newspaper” in the coming year. What she did was to invite the public to come into the editorial offices to proofread pages from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m.

And she had a bonus offer: “We’ll keep a tally of the proofreading volunteers,” she wrote at the paper’s site, “and award a nice dinner for two to the person who helps us catch the most typos and errors.”

Has she kick-started a media revolution? Let us imagine expanding that operation. Imagine a newspaper in Israel doing the same, asking the public to identify all their Hebrew language errors!

Or, instead of rewriting press releases from NGOs, like Peace Now or B’tselem, a reporter in Israel would call in someone who represents the institution being accused of some offense to review the material and provide a detailed analysis. The pro-forma one-sentence rejection of the claim would be replaced by interesting reality checks. After all, news should be comprised of verifiable facts, and not just rumors.

BBC’s television output head has promised viewers that the corporation will not make any more allmale comedy panel shows and the corporation is determined to see women appearing in this habitually macho environment.

Here in Israel, that principle, if applied generally, would truly affect the under-represented “outsiders” and lead to true pluralism. Balanced panels rather than the usual disproportionate left-wing bias would be a major contribution to improving our media and making it less boring.

We have observed in our reports on media coverage of elections that the media picks its favorites and shuts out certain parties or politicians. In Israel, the law still stipulates supervised broadcasting of television electioneering advertisements but that doesn’t always contribute to true democratic elections. We could learn from what has been done in England.

There, OFCOM, the broadcasting regulator, has introduced new rules that impose upon television channels to show election broadcasts of a smaller party, taking into account its growing popularity and demanding it should be recognized as a “major party” as determined by an outside independent entity.

In all previous election campaigns since 1996, Israel’s Media Watch’s reviews have highlighted the detrimental effects of television and radio output.

Without any objective standards or even supervision by the special Central Elections Committee, a small group of editors and directors promote parties and demote others. This out-of-sight-out-of-mind practice surely is anti-democratic and must be altered.

A different area of local media bias that needs attention was highlighted by our neighbors. A 2012 study for MADA, the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms, recommended the need for Arab “media workers to be more brave and courageous to break all forms of self-censorship.”

As researcher Mahmoud Alfataftah phrased it, “the most dangerous [aspect] of it is the self-censorship, which is exercised by the media outlet or the journalist on themselves.” This is something we Israelis can also adopt.

A recent example highlights much of what is wrong with our own media here. Various politicians proposed legislation that for all intents and purpose will halt the distribution of a free newspaper, Israel Hayom.

As Lahav Harkov published in this newspaper on March 19, a bill sponsored by MKs Eitan Cabel (Labor), Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beytenu), Ayelet Shaked (Bayit Yehudi), Elazar Stern (Hatnua), Ariel Attias (Shas) and Yoel Razbozov (Yesh Atid) would effectively “put Israel Hayom out of business.”

The Orwellian bill seeks to “strengthen written journalism in Israel and ensure equal and fair conditions of competition between newspapers.”

Mind-boggling is the statement of Cabel that “free newspapers also hurt journalism as well as pluralism and democracy in Israel.”

Some of our legislators over the years have been criticized, at times unfairly, as being either too self-serving, too beholden to special interests, or even for lacking the intelligence needed to be an MK. In this case, however, no criticism could be unfair.

In a democracy, not only is a free press one free of draconian regulatory restraints, but there can be no justification for punishing a newspaper for being a handout. The bill, in this 30th year after 1984, supposedly seeks to save print journalism from “a deep crisis that is only worsening and most newspapers are collapsing economically,” as the appended explanation to the bill reads. In reality, it is simply an attempt to prevent any balance in the general media anti-Netanyahu onslaught. The bill’s goal is the exact opposite of the freedoms Israel should be championing.

This McCarthyist attempt to shut up a central media organ in Israel should have received allaround condemnation, especially from all those media outlets which normally consider freedom of speech a fundamental principle of democracy. Their thundering silence (excluding the Israel Democracy’s Institute “7th Eye” website, which was critical) in response to these MKs’ attempt to prevent Israel Hayom from appearing says it all. They are the staunch defenders only of the freedom of their own speech, not that of those they disagree with.

Israel’s Knesset should learn from one of our own in this matter and recall the remark of former chief justice Moshe Landau in his famous Kol Ha’am decision (HCJ 73/53): “A regime that presupposes what is good for a citizen to know, will in the end decide what it is best they should think.” He added, “for citizens to be able to enjoy the right to express an opinion, they must have the ability to access sources of information.”

A free newspaper is not a threat. The public should be given choice, including even the choice of not paying for their news. The public’s preferences should be welcomed and also protected. The real threat is a uniform media which lacks pluralism and prevents it from occurring naturally.

The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imw.org.il).
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