This past Monday, the Knesset’s Economic Affairs Committee passed a government- proposed amendment to defer the implementation of the new Public Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) law. The law, adopted just last year, stipulated that by June 30 the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) would be dissolved and the new PBC would immediately begin operating. The necessary bureaucratic steps needed to implement the June 30 deadline were already in place, including the recommendations of the newly formed nominations committee, headed by judge (ret.) Ezra Kama, for the people who would lead the PBC.
But, as happens so many times, especially in a democracy, in the meantime we had elections.
The previous communications minister, Gilad Erdan, who barreled the law through the Knesset in record time, is now the minister of public security and strategic affairs. The communications minister is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and he appointed Minister-without- portfolio Ofir Akunis to implement communications policy.
The prime minister decided to temporarily freeze the recommendations of the Kama Committee and give himself time before having to take action.
It is this step which led to Monday’s deferment, giving the prime minister 90 days to decide. As might further be expected, the opposition as well as parts of the media roundly criticized the prime minister, accusing him of wanting to control Israel’s media and make it subservient to him. As Nati Tucker published at The Marker website: “The fear is that now, in order to appoint his people, Netanyahu will bring back the previous law where the appointment of the council and the CEO was in the hands of the politicians. Such interference would violate the independence of the broadcasting authority.”
Is this really the case, or are there some fatal flaws in the present PBC law? In the Economic Affairs Committee discussion, Minister Akunis noted repeatedly that even the name “Public Broadcasting Corporation” is problematic. Just as there is a British Broadcasting Corporation, he said, there should an Israel Broadcasting Corporation. This is not mere quibbling about a name. The law as it now stands raises a number of serious questions, which should be considered very carefully.
The IBA costs the Israeli taxpayer close to a billion shekels per year. As the motto goes, “no taxation without representation.” The taxpayer has a right to determine how her or his money will be spent. In democracies this process is well understood.
We go to the polls, elect our government and give it the power to implement policy. It is the government’s responsibility to see to it that our taxes are well spent. If our representatives do a bad job, they are sent home and someone else comes in their stead.
But this is not the case with the PBC law. In seeming deference to pressure from the media, who always demand that the media be separated from politics, Minister Erdan initiated the formation of the nominations committee. The communications minister appoints the head of the committee, who then appoints two further members and decides together with them who would lead the PBC. The minister can either approve their whole slate or nix all of them. He cannot decide that one or the other nominee is not fit for the job. On the face of it, the minister surrenders his power and subverts democracy.
The law fails those who pay for this service, we the taxpayers, and hands over a state institution to yet another clique. Only this time, one which by law is non-Zionist, marginally Israeli and almost void of any Jewish character.
Why did Erdan propose it? Perhaps it was a political scheme. The minister gives the power of nomination to a respected judge. If the judge makes mistakes, the minister can claim it’s not his fault. At the same time, behind the scenes, the minister can continue with the political appointments. It just so happens that the legal adviser of the Communications Ministry, Dana Neufeld, was present during the deliberations of the nominations committee. If one really wanted to disassociate the nomination from politics, why was she present at committee deliberations? After all, she is beholden to the minister who appointed her his legal adviser.
From personal experience, we know that the committee was mainly interested in finding people that fit the legislative framework dictated by Minister Erdan. This framework assures that the PBC is controlled by managers, not by visionaries.
It is at best meant to assure the financial viability of the PBC, but not much more.
The media and Israel’s Left demand separation of the PBC from political intervention, claiming that political control impedes the freedom of speech and obstructs the ability of journalists to do their job as the watchdog of democracy.
This is why they supported Minister Erdan’s nominations committee. We claim that the nominations committee is a travesty of democracy as it empowers the unelected elites to run a public corporation without being responsible to the taxpayer.
Is there a better system? We would claim that there is. Indeed, the 2012 IBA law which preceded Erdan’s PBC law was based on compromise.
It gave the minister the power to appoint half of the directorate. Is this a good compromise? The answers are not obvious, but the question is certainly weighty enough to justify a decision by the prime minister to give himself some time to study the issue carefully.
The flaws of the PBC law do not end with the nominations process. As indicated by Minister Akunis, the actual goals of the PBC are far from being consensus ones. Why does Israel need a PBC? Why should the public have to shell out close to a billion shekels annually for it? There must be some really good arguments justifying spending so much public money on a public broadcaster. The present PBC law presents nothing of the sort. The word “Zionism” does not appear in the PBC law, just as the word “Israeli” is not mentioned in the title of the PBC. One might think that in view of the international onslaught on Israel and Jews all over the world, an important part of the PBC’s mandate would be to broadcast and maintain an important public dialogue with world Jewry.
The 2012 IBA law stated among other things that the roles of the authority were to “present and document the lives and culture of the citizens of Israel and the Jewish people in the Diaspora” and “to broadcast the Israeli experience to the Diaspora.” Yet the PBC law does not mention the Diaspora even once.
The flaws of the PBC law are sufficient to fill the graduate thesis of an advanced media student.
In this column we just touched the tip of an iceberg. We would recommend that the present PBC law be abolished and replaced by its 2012 predecessor which, though far from perfect, would go a long way toward justifying the required public expenditure for its operation.
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imw.org.il).