Apublic broadcasting corporation came under attack at the end of June. A minister termed its coverage on an economic issue “relentless[ly] negative,” accused the network of being a “bigger opponent” to the government than the opposition and claimed that the news it was broadcasting “appears to consistently rely on a narrow band of commentators who are overwhelmingly negative.”
No, not the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA), but rather England’s BBC.
The criticism was from Work and Pensions Secretary Ian Duncan Smith.
In attempting to fend off a funding reform regarding license fees in the UK, the BBC director general Lord Hall has said, “What you get back from that [fee] is a broadcasting ecology that is the envy of the world.”
Here in Israel, the IBA will stop existing on April Fool’s Day, 2015. It will be replaced by a new entity, the Public Broadcasting Corporation (PBC).
Communication Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) steamrolled the new legislation through the Knesset. The law with its 146 paragraphs was voted on in the midst of Operation Protective Edge. It passed by a large margin, supported both by the coalition and many members of the opposition.
The law stipulates an interim period during which the IBA will continue its operations under the direction of a receiver, Professor David Hahn from the Faculty of Law at Bar-Ilan University. Hahn is the administrator-general and official receiver of the State of Israel. His academic expertise is in bankruptcy law.
His first step, on August 11, was to fire both the present chair of the IBA, Dr. Amir Gilat, and the director-general, Yoni Ben-Menachem, in one fell swoop. To assure that he would be able to oversee all the legal aspects of the receivership, he is employing the legal office of Yigal Arnon, one of the leading firms in Israel, employing over 100 lawyers. Their fees are not cheap (close to NIS 600 per hour including VAT). In this context, it is of interest to note that after finishing his law degree, Professor Hahn was a law clerk in... the Arnon firm.
Hahn’s job is big and expensive, not even counting legal fees. The PBC legislation stipulates that any lack of funds will be covered by the Finance Ministry. In other words, although beginning in 2016 we all will no longer have to pay the TV tax, the missing funds will still come from our tax money. The notion that the TV tax was abolished sells well, but in reality, there is good reason to believe that the cost to the taxpayer during the coming two years will be much higher.
The need to close down the IBA was urgent. During the past two years it had reached new depths of dysfunctional bureaucratic behavior. The public feud between IBA chair Gilat and director-general Ben-Menachem completely paralyzed the IBA. Instead of using their mandate to thoroughly reform the IBA, to stop its one-sided post-Zionist broadcasting, to introduce pluralism and to streamline its operations, the two battled each other to keep their turf. The end was well deserved as both lost their positions.
But the true loser is the public. The new PBC has some good points to it. The line of responsibility is clarified as now the PBC’s board appoints the director-general. The legal adviser can serve for only one term of seven years. The educational television station will terminate its independent operations and will be absorbed within the PBC. The PBC’s income will be from two main sources, namely the car tax and the other from advertisements. We take credit for this for already on April 13, 2003, we advocated in this paper that the TV tax be abolished and replaced by the car radio fee. For the past 10 years, we at Israel’s Media Watch have repeatedly pushed for this legislation, in meetings with ministers, MKs, high-level public servants, and in numerous articles in the papers, on radio and TV interviews, in position papers, Knesset debates and any other possible avenue. It is gratifying to see that our point of view has been accepted.
Indeed, the final form of the PBC legislation reflects many additional suggestions we made. The Landes commission which formulated the original version of the law did not consider it necessary to include in it any reference to the Jewish and Zionist character of the State of Israel as did the original Broadcasting Law. Our efforts led to deep changes of paragraph seven of the law, which delineates the PBC’s goals. These now stipulate that “the content of the PBC will reflect the fact that the State of Israel is a Jewish and Democratic state, its values and the Jewish Heritage.” It also stipulates that the PBC will foster and promote the Hebrew language.
Yet there is so much missing. For example, in contrast to the IBA, the PBC must no longer foster contact with the Jewish Diaspora. Its governing body is composed mainly of bureaucrats and there is no real representation of the public. There is very little in the way of foresight in the legislation.
Anyone familiar with the development of modern technology realizes that it will take no more than five years before the PBC and the army radio station lose their monopoly on national broadcasting.
Today, most consumers listen to FM radio. However, the cellular phone already provides almost limitless access to the Internet. This means that within a short time, we all, even in our cars, will no longer need the expensive analog FM broadcasts but instead get everything through the Internet. This implies, in turn, that not only virtually anyone will be able to broadcast, it will all be in the same location on our receivers. There will be no need to switch from one wavelength to the other. In such a market the PBC will have to compete, and it won’t be easy.
The PBC legislation does not provide any answer, although we raised this issue during the Knesset deliberations.
Perhaps though, the most damning and worrisome aspect of the PBC is its very name: “Israel” has disappeared from it. We no longer have an Israel Broadcasting Authority, but a Public Broadcasting Corporation. The Knesset committee, with Minister Erdan’s support, voted against inclusion of the word Israel in the new entity’s name. This more than anything else symbolizes the new spirit.
In essence, Israel’s public has lost its public broadcast corporation, which has in turn lost its Israeli identity. The new PBC does not bring with it an inspiring message. At this point, chances are that it will not contribute positively to Israel’s cultural and national environment. Israel’s public broadcasting has lost its Zionist soul.
The authors are vice chairman and chairman respectively of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imw.org.il).