(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Press councils exist in dozens of countries. Germany’s council was founded 55
years ago, and England’s in 1953. They are funded by publishers, who join on a
voluntary basis, and sometimes by government. They adopt standards for
accuracy and fairness, adjudicate complaints and attempt to mediate
But are press councils effective? Does self-regulation work?
Could they have taken on Rupert Murdoch and the phone hacking affair in the UK?
Do they protect the rights of media consumers and provide a democratic service,
or do they simply protect the media and the journalists?
The answer, it seems,
Israel’s press council was founded in 1963. Its members are
divided between 35 public representatives, 24 representatives of the journalists
and 26 representatives of the editors and publishers. It has a presidium of
“only” 41 people, and its president is former Supreme Court justice Dalia
Dorner. It has an ethics tribunal, but the number of cases adjudicated annually
is less than 20. The various ombudsmen serving Israel’s public media
organizations receive thousands of complaints each year.
council does not have any legal means at its disposal to enforce its decisions.
Its main authority stems from its ability to focus public attention on pressing
issues. Since the council’s members come from the media, one usually
finds that its public discussions receive broad coverage. The process by which
it decides whether or not to address a given issue, however, is not
The Council is lax in imposing its own ethics code on
journalists. The code states that: “A journalist shall not deal in any
occupation, work, service, public relations, advertising and soliciting of
advertisements which give rise to the suspicion or appearance of conflict of
interest.” These expressly include: “broadcasts of advertisements, public
relations or other similar service connected to the area of occupation or
expertise of the journalist presenting these services.” Yet Gabi Gazit
and Nathan Zehavi of FM 103 “fame” are frequently heard on radio advertisements
and the council and its president have not taken any steps against them.
RECENTLY, THE council discussed two pressing issues. One was alleged accusations
by the journalists’ labor unions that the Israel Broadcasting Authority was
being politicized of late. The head of Kol Yisrael, Michael Miro, was accused of
attempting to prevent the voicing of personal opinion by the radio’s employees.
An attempt by Israel’s Media Watch to appear before the council was stonewalled.
The IBA code of ethics states explicitly that the IBA does not have a “voice”
and that its journalists and anchors cannot express personal opinions.
Representatives of the IBA were not invited to the discussion and so, with only
one side to be heard, the council itself realized that another meeting should be
That second meeting took place last Thursday. Miro demanded that
the press council apologize for its previous behavior, blatantly
unfair. Summing up, Justice Dorner stated that: “the council appreciates
the fact that also the executives of the IBA believe that it should not be
political and that it should be strictly professional in carrying out its
Another embarrassing incident was when the council discussed
allegations that Ron Lauder used his influence to impose upon Channel 10 an
apology to Sheldon Adelson, who was the subject of an investigative program last
January. Ruth Yovel, who resigned from her position as the channel’s news editor
in protest, claimed repeatedly that she cannot answer any questions since she
was bound by a “secrecy agreement” whose “details even I don’t know.” Justice
Dorner, despite the fanfare about the need to defend the freedom of the press
from the rich, had to meekly end the session, noting that there wasn’t enough
evidence for a serious discussion.
Perhaps not less noteworthy are those
topics which the press council does not discuss. A degrading picture of Margalit
Tsanani as a prisoner was broadcast all over the media. Dorner publicly
decried this, but was not willing to convene the council to deal with the issue
or to use its influence with the various websites to remove the offensive
picture. The council, however, was quick in voicing an opinion when Ilana Dayan
was found guilty of libel and fined NIS 300,000 by the Jerusalem District Court
for her Channel 2 TV “documentary” accusing an IDF officer of shooting a
defenseless child in Gaza. The Council even took the unusual step of
requesting to be a respondent in Dayan’s appeal to the High Court of Justice.
When Ha’aretz journalist Uri Blau refused to hand over allegedly secret IDF
documents which were in his possession, the council quickly declared “it is not
appropriate to indict a reporter for holding a secret document as part of his
On the other hand, when its deliberations
reveal unethical actions by media people, more often than not, its decisions
appear in the back pages, low down on the page. The infractions are never
corrected in the same way they appeared: not on the same page, not with the same
size headlines or accompanying pictures. The press council, we should not
forget, is a voluntary institution which not only is self-regulatory but, it
seems, self protecting.
In Israel, sadly, it would seem that the Press
Council is quick in defending its own, but somewhat slow when considering the
media rights of the media consumers. It is impotent when it comes to improving
the woeful working conditions of journalists, yet quick to defend the media
against criticism. Is it any wonder that the Council is not really considered by
many to be important?Eli Pollak and Yisrael Medad are, respectively, Chairman
and Vice-Chairman of Israel’s Media Watch.