IBA HEADQUARTERS is located on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road..
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Radio Kol Yisrael’s main news channel, Reshet Bet, informs us many times daily that it “belongs to you and is for you.” This promotional slogan is fiction. The channel wants us to believe that public radio belongs to the public, which funds it, and that its sole purpose is to serve that public. We ask our readers’ indulgence but, once again, our column will be about the public broadcaster which for some reason does not seem to be able to get out of the news headlines. Instead of reporting news, it is creating news. This is a story not about the supposed benefits to the public, but those of the employees of the broadcaster.
In brief, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got cold feet with regard to the operation of the new Israeli Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) and thought it wiser to prevent its operation and resurrect the old Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) in its present form. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon disagreed and the compromise worked out was that the IBC would no longer have a news division. Instead, a new Public News Corporation (PNC) is to be established and it will operate independently of the IBC, just as the news corporations of TV channels 2 and 10 operate independently of the parent channels. The employees of the PNC will be the present news division employees of the IBA. With this decision, hardly any employees of the old IBA would be fired and domestic peace will be achieved.
But all is not well: there still are some differences between the Histadrut and the Finance Ministry as to the exact details. Since the present law states that the IBA ceases to exist on May 15, the government is again requesting a two-week or perhaps longer delay in implementation, ostensibly to iron out those details. Some pundits claim that this in fact is just to guarantee that the Histadrut does not paralyze the country during the upcoming visit of US President Donald Trump and that this ongoing IBA saga does not affect the Histadrut elections that are to be held on May 23. The public interest seems not to be at the heart of the issue.
In the meanwhile, the Knesset is debating the legislation needed to establish the PNC. The government’s proposal is a model of how one should not form a public news corporation. For starters, it will have an independent CEO and chief editor – two added jobs, instead of one. One can only imagine the ongoing clashes between the two when it comes to budgets. A chief editor without budgetary power is a joke, since it is the chief editor’s job to decide which correspondent to send where and with what equipment and with how many supporting staff. This costs money (and is but one of the reasons the old IBA fell into financial disarray). Worse, the chief editor cannot fire employees. The CEO will be interested in cutting costs and will not see the editorial needs. This is an excellent prescription for an impotent corporation.
The proposed legislation provides for an annual budget of NIS 135 million for the PNC, to be transferred directly from the Transportation Ministry. These funds will come from the broadcasting fee paid by us when we renew our car license. The budget will be linked to the cost of living index. This is another sure source of friction. Since the annual increase in the number of cars in Israel far surpasses the cost of living index the parent IBC will see its budget increase far more than that of the PNC.
The proposed budget will also be insufficient to pay the salaries of an expected 400 employees coming from the IBA and additional “fat cats” who will be on special contracts. Worse, the PNC will have to pay for the IBC’s services. One may expect that the IBC will be less than generous in the fees it demands.
In short, a sure recipe for friction, waste and a permanent demand for increasing budgets at the public expense. It would seem that Minister Kahlon’s hope that the budget of the PNC will not come from the account of the Finance Ministry will at best last for the present fiscal year.
But what about content? Is the new PNC mandated to uphold Zionist values in its news reporting? No. The proposed legislation demands that it be: “decent, responsible, impartial, trustworthy and open.” Not a word about a commitment to upholding Zionist values, respect for Jewish heritage and culture, news about the Jewish Diaspora or anything similar. The new PNC is completely disconnected from the Jewish state. One might think that its mandate comes from the United Nations. Why Israel needs to waste public money on such a PNC is beyond our understanding.
And about that claim that the public broadcaster serves the public. In fact, it essentially works the exact opposite way. An argument justifying a public broadcaster is that the public is provided the kind of news which the commercial companies do not offer.
Since the PNC will also be operating over the Internet, it has an unfair advantage over under-financed news sites that actually do provide true pluralism in news coverage. Many news content providers on the Internet, working with shoestring budgets, will be washed out by the PNC with its government support. When a state finances a public broadcasting corporation through the Internet, it creates unfair competition for those who are really doing the job. The private investor cannot compete with the coffers of a government. The result will be a stifling of pluralism rather than its increase.
Another problem is that the public through its elected representatives will not select the PNC’s board of directors. As with the IBC, its search committee, whose mandate it is to present the government with the governing body, is appointed by the minister in charge after consultation with the Supreme Court’s chief justice. The law, whose purpose is to distance politicians from the news corporation, does something much worse instead. As IMW and the Kohelet forum wrote in a letter to the Prime Minister, it gives the Supreme Court unprecedented power, of a kind not existing anywhere in the world. Whoever heard of a court involved in the appointment of media officials? Just imagine the effect on media criticism of the court. Moreover, will this lead to impartial news coverage? No.
These are only the tip of an iceberg. The makeup of the governing body of the PNC is not representative of the Israeli public, but rather will perpetuate the present stranglehold of the elites on our public broadcaster. The public that foots the bill and is disillusioned by the media in Israel will become even more so if this legislation passes.
The whole process is hasty, not well thought out, and does not serve the Israeli public. Public broadcasting in Israel should be abolished, that is the best way to really have news media that serve the public.
The authors are members of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imediaw.org.il).