Media Comment: A Swiss bribe
Some principles of media ethics should seem self-evident, and yet, journalists and their papers find it difficult to uphold them in practice.
The Grande Synagogue in Geneva Photo: Ronen Shnidman
Some principles of media ethics should seem self-evident, and yet, journalists
and their papers find it difficult to uphold them in practice. The ethics code
of Israel’s Press Council states quite clearly in paragraph 15A that: “A
newspaper and a journalist shall not place themselves in a position where there
is a suspicion of a conflict of interest between their duties as a newspaper and
a journalist and any other interest.”
For example, the principle means
that a journalist reporting on cars should not accept any financial advantage
from a car dealer or manufacturer, such as a fully paid invitation to an
international car show where his wares are on display.
The rationale is
simple: the public should receive an unbiased review of the various
Where, though, is the limit? A public official invites the press to
a press conference and supplies them with coffee and cake – does this create a
conflict of interest? Is this considered to be an ethical bribe which taints
both the receiver and the giver? The New York Times has a detailed code of
ethics readily found on their website. Among others, it states: “When we as
journalists entertain news sources [including government officials] or travel to
cover them, our company pays the expenses. In some business situations and in
some cultures, it may be unavoidable to accept a meal or a drink paid for by a
news source [for example, at an official’s residence or in a company’s private
Whenever practical, however, we should avoid those
circumstances and suggest dining where we can pay our share...
refreshments at an event like a news conference are acceptable, but a staff
member should not attend recurring breakfast or lunch meetings unless our
company pays for the journalist’s meals… Staff members may not accept free or
discounted transportation and lodging except where special circumstances give
little or no choice.”
The Times is not stating anything surprising. It is
just accepting a clear standard, taught in journalism schools and upheld by many
media organizations which is that a journalist should not accept any favors from
any subject which she or he is covering.
Such support leads to a conflict
of interest. In plain language, it is an ethical bribe and like any bribe, it
taints both the organization attempting to give it, as well as the one who
Arguably, the most important school of journalism in Israel
is the army radio station Galatz. It, however, does not seem to understand this
basic principle. On November 23, 2011, Galatz’s political reporter Il’il Shachar
provided Galatz’s listeners with a report from Geneva on a conference of the
“Geneva Initiative” which was taking place that same week in Geneva. Its mission
statement states, among others things, that its goal is to “educate and
campaign, both locally and internationally, that it is in the best interest of
Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate directly in order to reach a realistic,
dignified, and sustainable twostate solution,” thus placing it firmly on the
left side of the divide between right and left in Israel.
On that same
day, an astute and attentive listener, sent a letter to Galatz with a simple
query: “I would like to please obtain information as to who funded Ms. Shachar’s
trip to Geneva.” After waiting vainly for an answer for six weeks, the listener
asked that Israel’s Media Watch (IMW) intervene on his behalf. On February 16, a
second request was submitted by the listener to Galatz. In response, he was
informed that his letter was being forwarded to Galatz’s complaints
commissioner, Oded Levinson.
On May 3, almost three months later,
Levinson wrote back that his question is “under study.” On July 30, almost
another three months later, IMW demanded an answer from Levinson. On August 15,
some eight months after the original complaint, an answer finally emerged, with
Levinson writing to IMW that: “The issue is a serious one since it touches the
heart of journalistic work and professional ethics. Believe me that the issue is
on the desk of Galatz’s commander, Mr. Yaron Dekel, who we all know is a valiant
and decent journalist. I spoke with him about the issue a number of times, and
significant steps are being taken on this issue, as you understand and know
though, not everything can be revealed to the public.”
IMW responded on
August 19, noting that the public deserves an immediate answer as to who funded
Shachar’s trip to Geneva. After further stonewalling, on September 12, IMW
submitted a formal complaint to the Israeli Press Council.
This, and only
this, finally led to results.
Shachar, complaining to IMW that they did
not consult with her and that there was no need for IMW to file a complaint with
the Press Council, provided her personal answer on September 20. Her trip was
funded by the Swiss government.
As Shachar must know, the Swiss
government, led by former foreign minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, are avid
supporters of the Geneva Initiative.
In no way can it be considered as an
impartial third party.
Already in 2003, Calmy-Rey actively supported the
Geneva Initiative. In 2006, she openly denounced Israeli bombing in Lebanon,
terming it “disproportionate,” calling for respect of humanitarian law. Swiss
involvement is so deep that even a pro-Palestinian NGO viewed their involvement
as prejudicial against the Palestinians.
In fact, Shachar in her report
noted that the conference was held under the auspices of Calmy-Rey, the
president of Switzerland at the time.
Shachar should be complimented,
though, for providing an answer. Galatz, to this day has not sent IMW an
official answer, not to mention an explanation.
Accepting funding from
the Swiss government, which stands behind the Geneva Initiative, makes it
virtually impossible for the political correspondent covering the event, whose
trip was paid by the Swiss, to be critical. Her reporting was
One could surmise that Levinson was reluctant to divulge the
funding source, since it is now clear that not only was there a breach of ethics
on the part of Galatz but that the Swiss government was part of an unethical
It should have never invited a journalist on its account to
cover the Geneva initiative.
Giving a journalistic bribe is just as bad
as accepting it.
IMW did not accept Schachar’s demand that IMW retract
its complaint to the Press Council. It is our firm belief that it is high time
that Galatz understand that it is a publicly funded body, which owes the tax
payer a full explanation.
Galatz should undertake administrative steps to
make sure that such a conflict of interest does not repeat
Finally, we would like to commend the social responsibility of
the author of the original complaint who persisted in demanding that Galatz be
accountable for its actions.
The authors are respectively vice chairman
and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch www.imw.org.il