Israel’s media has repeatedly accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of wanting to control it. For example, his backtracking on the formation of the Israel Broadcasting Corporation (IBC), which had been supposed to replace the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA), was interpreted by his detractors as another attempt by Netanyahu to impose his will on the media. Since the IBC seemed to be filling up with anti-Netanyahu forces, the story was that Netanyahu had decided he’d be better off with the “old” IBA, which would be forever thankful to him for preventing its dissolution. This perverted interpretation is but one of many “fake news” items to which the Israeli public has been subjected.
Who really controls Israel’s media? Is it the government, the politicians, the “tycoons” – or, just perhaps, could it be those elements in the media that cry wolf loudest while doing all they can to assure the continuity of their influence and at the same time expand their own control.
Politicians can, at least in principle, exercise their influence mostly on the public media. This is why for years they would not close down the wasteful Educational TV network, or impose fiscal restraint on the IBA. Similarly, we suspect that Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s threat to shift control of the Galatz radio station to the Defense Ministry was just another political ploy aimed at assuring influence over the station.
In a similar vein, Israel has another public media station, the Knesset Channel, which costs the taxpayer “only” NIS 25 million a year.
The American system is simple. Congress televises its public proceedings and make them available to anyone who wants to use them, whether live or via the Internet.
C-span uses whichever proceedings it finds interesting and broadcasts it through the cable and satellite networks. The cost to the taxpayer is nothing. The consumer can, via the Internet, watch any congressional proceeding she or he desires. The American system is not predicated on many hours of studio broadcasting with panels, interviews and debates between politicians or public figures such as pundits, academics and social activists.
The Israeli system is very different. The Knesset provides a budget of NIS 25m. annually and contracts a company for a period of 10 years to take over Knesset broadcasting.
Although nowadays almost all Knesset proceedings are recorded by Knesset staff, the public can only access them through the filter of the Knesset Channel. In principle, the concessionaire has to be impartial, whereas in practice any broadcaster will always use some filter to provide what is perceived as interesting to the public.
This filter is very meaningful. Consider a typical Knesset committee debate. Does the Knesset Channel pick up all speakers? By no means – only those considered acceptable by the concessionaire. Although many NGOs, companies, groups and private individuals exercise their democratic right and spend their precious time appearing in front of Knesset committees to testify and provide information, only a very small minority will ever be seen by the public since the Knesset Channel does not broadcast all the proceedings. Instead, it uses precious air time for useless, boring and repetitive debate, and biased commentary.
The concessionaire can choose, for example, to spend more time on someone from a company which advertises on the parent channel or whose goals benefit the parent channel by inviting the people involved to one of the talk shows. Owning a TV concession is about much more than just broadcasting. It is a source of power, influence and money.
It is not surprising then that the 10-year concession is highly valued. There are four finalists in the current bidding process. TV Channel 2, which operated the channel for the past 13 years, is one, as is TV Channel 10, which is under the aegis of the R.G.E. Group, a privately-held media operation whose main assets, besides Channel 10, are NOGA Communications and Sports Channel 5. The other two are smaller companies: on is TV Channel 20, the other is funded by Ami Giniger, owner of the Ulpanei Herzliya company.
The final decision will be made in the coming month, as the concession of Channel 2 runs out in May.
Logic would seem to have it that the concession should not be given to Channel 2 for, after all, government funding should be spread out and a chance given to other companies.
A monopoly is not healthy in general and certainly when it comes to the media. One would also have liked to think the concession would not be given to a company which has violated its previous fiduciary commitments to the state, in addition to bilking the public of over a billion shekels, which is the amount the company should have paid the government over the years but refused to. It did, however, provide outrageous salaries for its “celebrity staff.” In other words, TV Channel 10 should also not be in the running.
But that’s not the way things are done in Israel. Both channels, that cry out that the government wants to control the media, actually not only control a sizable portion of the media market, but have an insatiable appetite for more. Any attempt by Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein to assure that the new concessionaire does not use its power to show the Knesset at its ugliest was nixed. In fact, politicians had very little influence over how the new concession would be formulated or awarded. Those who really influenced the process in the Knesset, thus far, were the TV stations themselves. They can afford to peddle their wares for the politicians’ fear of them is deathly.
So, what have we got? The public, as usual, is the loser.
It not only pays the concessionaire but in the process loses the ability to really know what is happening in the Knesset. The politicians have no say in the operation of the channel. It is the concessionaire who has the power, who can focus the spotlight on politician A or B and who can further any agenda – political, economic, cultural.
Israel’s democracy would profit if the media exercised a wee bit of self-control. The ideal situation would be for the Knesset itself to provide live coverage, available to all, at no cost. A media company or NGO that wants then to cover Knesset proceedings could do so. The only legislation needed would be to increase the number of legal TV stations in Israel, which means, for all intents and purposes, operating under free market conditions. This is precisely what the present concessionaires do not want; they prefer “self-control.”The authors are members of Israel’s Media Watch. www.imediaw.org.il