Shekel money bills.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Public funds, collected from taxes in one form or another, seem always to be treated in a cavalier fashion, almost contemptuously, and without regard to their real value by government officials or the government institutions that benefit from the collections in the public coffer.
There is a Jewish joke that highlights this unfortunate attitude in a particular fashion.
The shtetl’s “fallen woman” had passed away and donated her inheritance to the local synagogue to support the study of the Talmud. The gabbai arranged for a commemorative plaque and invited the congregants for a kiddush in her memory and to honor this considerable monetary windfall. The rabbi was aghast and, quoting the verse at Deuteronomy 23:18, that the earnings of a prostitute should not be brought into God’s House, attempted to halt the proceedings. The gabbai quickly whispered in his ear, “but, Rebbe, it’s really all our own money.”
The details of the finances of the Defense Ministry expenditures for Galei Tzahal radio are not public knowledge, especially the salaries paid to its civilian employees; that is, the media celebrities it hires. It’s as if “it’s all our own money,” not the public’s. There is no official accounting known to the public, detailing income from advertisements and certainly not the price per ad that the station gets for its air time.
The same holds true – even more so – for the Public Broadcasting Corporation (PBC). It took Israel’s Media Watch years to obtain even minimal transparency for the budget of the old Israel Broadcasting Authority. Israeli law, under the Freedom of Information Act, demands that public entities such as the PBC or Galei Tzahal provide the necessary information to anyone who asks for it.
Interestingly, during the seven and a half months of operation in 2017, the PBC’s income from ads stood at NIS 46m., which is less than NIS 75m. on an annual basis. In 2015, the reported income of the old IBA was more than NIS 110 million on an annual basis. What happened? Why the drop? Will the PBC explain the shortfall?
We know that the time allotted to ads on the PBC has, if anything, increased relative to the IBA, so the only possible explanation is that the price per ad has hit rock bottom. If true, this would imply that the PBC is taking unfair advantage of its public funding to undermine the commercial media stations. Of course, the other possibility is that the department in charge of ad revenues is a failure at its job and should be fired.
Israel’s Media Watch, under the Freedom of Information Act, requested specific information from the PBC. We wanted to know the answers to our questions. How much of the income comes from governmental sources? How much from private? What was the separate income of the different stations held by the PBC?
Why is this information important?
The PBC claims that media pluralism is essential for Israel’s democracy and has blamed the prime minister for undermining it. Well, to open a new radio station, one needs a business model. If the pricing of the PBC is kept secret, it becomes virtually impossible to do this. It is not surprising that we do not have national private radio stations. The PBC refuses to divulge the information, claiming that this is a trade secret. Trade secret? The PBC is not a business, it is a publicly funded corporation. By refusing to be open, the PBC is undermining anyone who would try to compete.
Yet this is the same station that claims that it is the bastion of Israel’s democratic values and their protector and any attempt to really oversee its activities – or worse, close it down – they describe as a fatal danger to our democracy. The truth is that this is all hypocrisy. The major interest of the PBC is to increase its funding so that its “stars” can take home fatter paychecks. Israel’s Media Watch does not accepting that answer and will in the near future take the PBC to court.
This rather minor issue pales when compared to the big news: the merging of TV Channel 10 and the Reshet TV station. Our memory is not short; it was only a short while ago that the Israeli government contemplated closing down TV Channel 10 due to its various delinquencies. At that time, the pronouncements made by officials were scary.
For example, as reported in Haaretz on August 29, 2012, President Reuven Rivlin, who then was only a member of Knesset, said, “The channel is an existing fact. Its closure will endanger the freedom of speech in Israel. The fate of the channel is not only an economic issue but concerns the conduct of the media market in a democracy. I had the privilege of initiating the channel as Minister of Communications and already then felt that the conditions of the concession were impossible. It is true that one has to keep commitments, but the damage to the foundations of democracy and the Israeli media market take precedence.”
The present merging of the two TV channels, which is nothing less than the actual closing down of TV Channel 10, received no such powerful words from President Rivlin. He did not exhort the owners to prevent this serious danger to Israel’s democracy. Why? Because it really is not serious. It is high time that one of these channels disappears, since both have little to offer which is not offered by the Keshet TV station.
But what about the employees? At the time, when the government wanted to close TV 10 down, their hue and cry reached a crescendo. The union shut down the station’s broadcasting for a few hours to express their disapproval with the government’s initiative. Matan Chodorov, head of TV 10’s employee union, was explicit: “The exceptional step of blackening the screen is a result of the ongoing disregard of Benjamin Netanyahu from the most serious crisis in the history of commercial TV in Israel. We hope that the appropriate way will be found to preserve the freedom of the press in Israel and bring Channel 10 to its safe haven.” No more, no less.
Democracy and all its hallowed principles would have been violated had the government closed the channel down. And today? The channel is disappearing for commercial reasons, not political ones, and what happened to the hue and cry? It disappeared. That which is permitted to the rich and financially powerful is not permitted to the people and their public representatives. This is our media and its players. The hype against the closure of TV Channel 10 at the time had nothing to do with democracy and values, it was just another attempt to bring the Netanyahu government to its knees.The writers are members of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imediaw.org.il)