Last Thursday, in the wee hours of the morning, it seemed that after 65 years something was really moving in our public broadcasting system. Minister Ofir Akunis (Likud) and Rabbi MK Israel Eichler (United Torah Judaism) spearheaded a welcome change in the ethical principles guiding our public broadcasting. After years during which especially the public broadcasting journalists usurped the airwaves for their own purposes under the guise of free speech and democracy, the Knesset, guided by Akunis and Eichler, passed the following amendment, which would be applicable to all employees of the public broadcaster: “Avoid one-sidedness, prejudice, expressing personal opinions, giving grades and affixing labels, ignoring facts or selectively emphasizing them not according to their newsworthiness.”
These words resulted in a brouhaha. Our public broadcasting journalists led the pack, shouting gevalt! a crime! Here’s one example, from the Facebook page of IBA representative Yigal Ravid, who had this to say to Minister Akunis: “You were the patron of crooked and stupid administrators who provided you with the microphone without your asking for it and you did not pay attention to warnings about their flattery.”
In one sentence, this public broadcast journalist potentially violated the law twice. He attacked not only the minister but also his colleagues in the IBA, who were carrying out their duties as public servants. Ravid expects that a minister or MK has to request to be interviewed, but does not think it reasonable that sometimes an editor might invite a politician to be interviewed without having pressure put upon him.
Another example is Amnon Abramowitz, who in his Friday night weekly sermon on Channel 2 TV reminded us all that 20 years ago Israel’s Media Watch went to the Supreme Court against the IBA, demanding that Abramowitz’s private opinions be withheld from the public. Abramowitz, as in many other cases, was not accurate in his report. Our brief at the time was to assure that he would be balanced by someone else with different opinion, to assure pluralism. The IBA had no choice but to accept the demand but argued that balance need not be achieved on a specific day, but over time. It took but a few more years until Abramowitz had to leave the IBA, since he was not willing to have anyone challenge him on air. Abramowitz and pluralism do not go together.
It is precisely this kind of unethical and unprofessional behavior that Minister Akunis and MK Eichler tried to bring to a halt. Not that one should expect Israeli journalists to abide by the new guidelines; Ravid and his friends have a deep disdain for professional ethics. They also do not understand democracy – after all, the public broadcaster belongs to the public, not to Ravid.
Unfortunately though, our prime minister lost his will to do battle with these self-serving prophets of doom. He gave in to the noise, and it took only two days for him to draft a revision of the law, canceling the impertinent paragraph of Akunis and Eichler.
Minister Akunis, an avid supporter of the prime minister, had no choice but to resign as minister responsible for implementation of the public broadcasting law. If the prime minister is going to overrule his decisions, why should he take the responsibility? Indeed, during the past few weeks, the prime minister on two other occasions overruled Akunis, likely out of fear of the media. The original law mandated that all employees of the IBA would cease working on the day the law is implemented. The workers, with the Histadrut, threatened a general strike, even implementing a minor two-hour shutdown of the airport, and the prime minister relented. At present, no employee of the IBA will be fired, everything will be done “by agreement” between the employee organizations and the finance ministry.
The third instance had to do with appointing the board for the newly formed Israeli Broadcasting Corporation.
The prime minister did not ratify the appointments.
The outcry was strong, especially from the opposition, and the prime minister again relented, ratifying the new board this past week.
But let us consider the facts. For one, the Akunis/ Eichler amendment is nothing new. The venerated BBC, arguably the most respected public broadcaster in the world, has the following guidelines: “BBC staff and regular BBC presenters or reporters associated with news or public policy-related output may offer professional judgments rooted in evidence. However, it is not normally appropriate for them to present or write personal view programmes and content on public policy, on matters of political or industrial controversy, or on ‘controversial subjects’ in any area.”
The BBC is not alone.
The Australian public broadcaster’s guidelines are: “Do not state or imply that any perspective is the editorial opinion of the ABC. The ABC takes no editorial stance other than its commitment to fundamental democratic principles including the rule of law, freedom of speech and religion, parliamentary democracy and equality of opportunity. Do not misrepresent any perspective. Do not unduly favour one perspective over another.”
In fact, a fundamental aspect of public broadcasting is that its employees do not use their positions to further their personal agendas. A permanent employee who has a daily program cannot be balanced by his or her guests. It violates the principle of pluralism and worst of all, especially when it comes to news, it creates mistrust.
After all, if the anchor has a strong opinion, how can she or he be fair to whoever they are interviewing? It was Swedish professor Hans Rosling, and not a “right wing” Israeli, who, on Danish television last week, criticized the media for being “arrogant,” adding, “You can’t trust the news outlets if you want to understand the world.” And it was Maulana Mohammed Ali Jauhar, one of India’s foremost early 20th-century journalists and a Muslim activist, who declared, “Politics was a passion, not a pastime, and journalism a ‘means’ not an ‘end.’” Legislation is, in principle, bad policy. Ethics and professionalism are implemented much more successfully if they come from within, rather from an external law. The sad truth though is that for decades, pluralism, objectivity and respect for the public have not been part of the public broadcaster’s ethos. This is not to say that one cannot identify some impeccable professionals who do not follow the pack. But it is the majority that create the spirit, which in this case is bad.
Moreover, even though the law provides for oversight in the form of public commissions and ombudsmen, in practice they have no clout and more often are simply unwilling to censor their colleagues. The Akunis/Eichler legislation was a necessity, but was overruled by weakness.
To end on a positive note, we wish all of our readers a happy, healthy and blessed New Year and pray that among many other needs of our valiant country, the newly formed public broadcaster, too, will find the way to turn a truly liberal, pluralistic and democratic page.
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imw.org.il).