MEDIA COMMENT: Breaking the rules

Ever since Israel’s Media Watch was founded in early 1995, a principle we have adhered to is to use the various broadcasting and print media rules here and abroad as a yardstick.

By ELI POLLAK
July 3, 2019 22:00
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Newspapers [Illustrative] . (photo credit: INGIMAGE)

In some countries it is well understood that rules are made to be broken. Some people find creative ways to justify breaking the rules. Some even are able to provide almost a sacred reason for doing so.

Ever since Israel’s Media Watch was founded in early 1995, a principle we have adhered to is to use the various broadcasting and print media rules here and abroad as a yardstick by which we could measure bias and other unethical practices.

Twenty-five years ago Israel’s media conduct codes were exemplary, with the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s Nakdi Document collection leading the pack as a shining beacon. Broadcasting legislation passed by the Knesset was also largely rational, not too severe, yet imposing, especially upon the publicly funded broadcasters, a reasonable collection of codes of conduct.

Based on these, we, as well as the public, were able to appeal to the regulatory bodies and to the ombudsmen appointed to supervise the media as well and request that they enforce the rules – their rules, not ours.

It was, however, at this juncture that we were taught the facts of life: rules are to be broken, not enforced. This included especially those people whose job was to assure that the rules are kept.

KALMAN LIEBSKIND, who was acknowledged by IMW way back in 2002 as an outstanding journalist, penned a column in Maariv, where he is a staff columnist, on June 9. The content really isn’t important, but it was titled “Does Netanyahu really push the outlook of the national camp?”

What is important is that Liebskind, together with Erel Segal, host a daily current affairs program broadcast every weekday evening on KAN’s Channel 1 television. As a follow-up to Liebskind’s article, the two, while interviewing a guest – Shlomo Pieterkovski from the Besheva newspaper – began to argue with each other whether Liebskind’s anti-Netanyahu point of view was correct.

Pieterkovski was forgotten and could barely get a word in, while for some four minutes the two hosts began raising their voices and interrupting each other, with Segal accusing Liebskind of “Bibiphobia” and Liebskind defending his point of view. It appeared as if two political candidates were trying to convince the audience for whom to vote.

Obviously, the rule about not expressing personal opinions was broken. But that rule has become rather forsaken in recent years. In fact, the KAN people would claim that it is no longer a rule, and that they put together a new code of “ethics” which encourages their journalists to throw their two bits into the public arena. Gone is the era in which decent journalists accepted the fact that the airwaves do not belong to them, and that their personal opinion carries no more moral weight than that of any other citizen.

At the end of the day, though, this light-headedness boomerangs. Libel should be a serious issue. On her Uvda program, “star” investigative journalist Ilana Dayan libeled then-Captain R., of Druze origin. Dayan claimed that he gave an order to ascertain the death of a 14-year-old child. This claim was pure fiction, and even Dayan, in the aftermath, did not deny it. She only claimed that at the time she broadcast the story it was “true.” The district court found her guilty, but the Supreme Court overruled its ruling, inventing the legal concept of “truth at the time of report.” Dayan came out scot-free. And she did not have to pay any legal charges, as the state did that for her.

Now, that precedent is repeating itself. The media has been highlighting the various charges and court cases of both Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu. In particular, the prime minister’s attempts to be permitted to obtain funding from individuals for his defense are under severe media attack. But what is true for the Netanyahus is not true for others. Hadas Shteif, employed by Army Radio, lost a court case involving 13 libelous claims she broadcast targeting another journalist – Natan Zahavi. The court severely
reprimanded Shteif for not doing her homework and not interviewing the women who accused Zahavi. He was awarded close to NIS 400,000.

Under such circumstances, Shteif should have been promptly fired. Not only was she not even reprimanded, the state is fully covering her costs, whether the funds she has to pay to Zahavi, or the legal costs involved in the present state attempt to overturn the ruling of the lower court.

Israel’s Media Watch has asked both Army Radio and the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, which is legally responsible for the nonmilitary broadcasts of Army Radio, for a response, but no answer has been forthcoming. The same goes for the State Prosecutor’s Office, which does not feel that it is its duty to explain why it has the right to waste the taxpayers’ money on an issue that is civilian and relating to an employee who knowingly broke the rules.

In the long run, though, rules should not be broken, and those who belittle them ultimately do pay the price.

The latest story is that of Yaron London. His former Channel 10 program, London and Kirschenbaum, rarely respected rules. It was unabashedly skewed toward the liberal Left for many years. Now he shares his broadcast time at KAN’s Channel 11 with Geula Even-Sa’ar. Last week, he happily admitted to grabbing a breast of a lady in an elevator in response to her poking him in the stomach.

The ensuing brouhaha was strong. This is precisely what the law does not allow, sexual mishandling of a woman. London tried to defend himself, claiming that he was attacked first. But when you get used to knowing that you are always right, you lose direction. London should have known, and we suspect he does know, that one is not allowed to take the law into one’s own hands. Grabbing a breast of a woman, even poking her in the navel for that matter, is an aggressive act which the law forbids. It does not matter that the lady poked him first. For that, he should have gone to the police with a formal complaint against the lady for assault. He could have berated her verbally. But physical force is a no-no, and especially when it has a sexual connotation.

Although the KAN station is not taking any meaningful steps against London, who to our mind does not deserve to be part of Israel’s media at all, London lost much of his prestige. The public will take him less seriously than in the past.

BE THAT as it may – or, perhaps, may not – the public, the media, the law and democracy are best served when rules are not to be ignored but act as guidelines for ethical and professional journalism as well as proper behavior by those in the media field. The media demand this behavior from politicians. The people should demand it of the media.

All those crying about the loss of democracy and rule of law should start becoming serious about it.

The authors are members of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imediaw.org.il)


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