Another Hebrew calendar year has come to a close and we are in the period of taking account, both of the successes and failures of Israel’s media as well as our own activities. Almost 20 years have passed since we founded Israel’s Media Watch (IMW). Our goals were to monitor the Israeli media, judge its performance according to the media’s own codes of ethics and the laws of the country, and seek to prevent media bias which undermines Israel’s democratic fiber.
Media ethics is an ongoing struggle, and not only in Israel. A month ago, the American-based Society of Professional Journalists approved a new code of ethics at its Nashville convention. Citing the idea that “a just society and good government require an informed public,” the code seeks to ensure that reported information “is accurate, fair and thorough.”
At that same convention, the Radio and Television Digital News Association proposed a new code of ethics whose core is the proposition that “journalism verifies, provides relevant context, tells the rest of the story and acknowledges the absence of important additional information.”
One issue dealt with by these overseas bodies is one with which we are quite familiar here in Israel. Due to the pressure of deadlines and sharp competition, corners are cut, complex concerns are oversimplified and editors are too busy with “trending,” “going viral” or “exploding on social media.” The end product is less reliable and informative.
Given this reality, abroad as well as in Israel, what was the past year like? While the Americans worry about ethics, here at the Israel Broadcasting Authority, which is now under receivership, there is no longer a binding code of ethics.
The old authority tried to install a new code, one which we thought was counterproductive as it undermined journalistic responsibility. Contradictory resolutions were passed by the IBA boards with the result being that the IBA’s complaints commissioner can validate almost any ethical infraction of the IBA’s “stars”.
One would hope that the new leadership would quickly step in and install a binding code of ethics.
Just last week, Israel’s High Court of Justice handed down its decision on the drawn-out “Captain R” affair.
The captain’s name was besmirched by Channel 2’s Uvda program produced by Dr. Ilana Dayan. The court, by majority vote, decided to uphold a previous ruling that Dayan is not liable for libel and therefore the fine of NIS 300,000 set by the district court was annulled.
Dayan, whose program wrongly portrayed the officer as the cold-blooded killer of a young girl, announced that the court “anchored the basic principles of freedom of expression in its decision.”
Truthfully though, the court’s decision was a mixed bag. First of all, the TV station was still fined NIS 100,000 for its unfair promos against Captain R. Secondly, the court did not uphold the previous decision that “momentary truth” is a valid defense against libel cases. Thirdly, Dayan paid a heavy personal price for her tactics. Anyone who has had a court case knows that they involve sleepless nights and worries about the future. Moreover, the court did not order Captain R to pay court expenses to Dayan. In other words, although the court exonerated her of libel and reduced the NIS 300,000 fine, Dayan was indeed punished.
One can assume that in the future she will be much more careful. The media industry paid careful attention to the court’s lengthy judgment and knows that libel is still a violation which may lead to harsh sentences.
Will this judgment improve our media? Hopefully, yes.
We noted in this column several times our serious misgivings with respect to the future of the newly created state-sponsored Public Broadcasting Corporation.
Will it continue to limit the plurality of opinion? Will the narrow-minded focus of its predecessor, the IBA, continue to be the ethos of the new PBC? If so, it would be undermining its important goal of facilitating a genuine dialogue between Israel’s citizens and its political, economic and cultural institutions. Or will the new year bring with it a breath of fresh air? Not only the new PBC, but also the other outlets and networks, radio as well as television, continue to be poorly regulated. The ombudsmen are either lacking in personal courage, or prefer their friends in the media or their positions and financial compensation over the need to call out violations of media laws and professional codes of ethics with appropriate actions against the offenders.
We perceive, and our columns have brought to light multiple examples, month after month and year after year, on a variety of issues, the existence of a media-political complex which allows left-wing views to dominate our airwaves, with near impunity. Panels lack balance. Expert columnists have a one-way view. Concerns of certain groups whether political, religious or ethnic, are ignored. Israel’s media image, despite the country’sdemographic changes over the decades, is still secular, left-wing liberal and Western-oriented.
One bright aspect is that when IMW set out on its mission two decades ago, we were alone in the field.
An effort a decade earlier under the slogan “The People Versus A Hostile Media” was short-lived. Today, there are several left-leaning groups combating media bias, such as The Seventh Eye journal and Tel Aviv University’s Chaim Herzog Institute for Media Politics & Society. Even the far Left has established its own media review organization: Keshev. Columnists specializing in media criticism such as Kalman Liebskind, Erel Segal, Emily Amrusi, Dr. Dror Eydar and Ben-Dror Yemini enjoy a broad readership.
The Internet has sprouted valuable media review organizations in Israel, such as Presspectiva and the Velvet Underground blog of Dvorit Shargal. In academia, scholars have also begun to pick up on media review.
Some of these contributions were recognized by the prestigious Abramowitz Israeli Media Criticism Prize.
Nevertheless, the inertia, the historic process of “a friend bringing a friend” by which the media replicates itself, the power of government budgets and commercial financial interests all manage to defend what should be indefensible. Media infractions receive protection from politicians, from judges, from fellow media personnel and, to our chagrin, a public that is too often apathetic to actually mobilize.
Channel 10 literally rode roughshod over and simply steamrolled the members of Knesset when it wanted to continue to broadcast despite all its failings and unethical performance. The army’s Galei Tzahal radio station is still working in financial secrecy. News anchors continue to get away with making remarks that color the facts in accordance with their viewpoints.
As we go into the year 5775, Israel does not yet have a “robust media” or a truly free press. Israeli media may be more appropriately described as the tool of the country’s elite. Our hopes for the coming year are increased pluralism, for example implementation of Communications Minister Gilad Erdan’s program to turn Channel 2’s Reshet and Keshet companies into two independent channels, close down Channel 10 permanently and open the field to anyone who wants and knows how to broadcast.The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imw.org.il).