It’s hard to get an accurate picture of what’s going on at the Israel Broadcasting Authority at the moment.
Soon, perhaps as early as the end of next month, there might not be a picture at all coming out of Israel Television’s studios and no sound from Israel Radio. To say that ITV and Israel Radio face an uncertain future would be an understatement. They might not have a future at all, a fear which this week led to protest rallies by employees more used to covering demonstrations than participating in them. In the possible/likely switch from the IBA to the Israel Broadcasting Corporation, a new body that’s meant to replace it, some 1,000 people are expected to lose their jobs.
Similar to the process surrounding a serious illness or bereavement, I have watched many friends and colleagues go from denial to anger; some have progressed to bargaining and depression; a few have made it to acceptance, passing through the stages of grief.
Their sense of loss is understandable. They are losing their livelihoods and they are losing a way of life, through no fault of their own. No wonder some are literally sick with worry.
Where does the story start? In 1936, the radio station then known as the Voice of Jerusalem was formed during the British Mandate. This was to become the Voice of Israel in 1948 with the birth of the state.
Israel Television was launched in 1968, starting with an ambitious and bombastic broadcast of the Independence Day military parade, a year after the country’s astonishing victory in the Six Day War.
It’s come a long way since then. Fans fondly refer to it as “Israel’s BBC without the anti-Israel bias.” The radio has branched out to some 10 stations, best known among them the news-based Reshet Bet, Hebrew music station Reshet Gimmel, and broadcasts in languages including Arabic, English, French, Russian, Amharic and Farsi.
The beginning of the end came in 2014, with the decision by then-communications minister Gilad Erdan to abolish license fees and, shortly after that, along with then-finance minister Yair Lapid, to do away with the IBA altogether.
The move caught many by surprise as, following some seven years of negotiations, the IBA, the journalists’ associations representing them, and the Finance Ministry had finally signed an agreement for a far-reaching reform that would have made the broadcasting authority more streamlined and cost-effective.
After his report on the handling of the tunnels threat during Operation Protective Edge, maybe the state comptroller could examine why the government felt it so urgent to rush the law that would close the IBA through all three Knesset readings while the war was still raging, and journalists and their support staff were doing what they do in such circumstances – working around the clock, often in dangerous conditions, trying to put the fears about their friends and families to the back of their minds.
Under the so-called Public Broadcasting Law, the veteran broadcasting authority was scheduled to close at the end of March 2015. The land on which its studios and offices sit, in prime real-estate areas in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv as well as smaller premises in Haifa and Beersheba, would be sold to pay for employees’ compensation and finance the transfer to the new corporation.
No wonder some observers got the impression that real-estate interests merged with the political power struggles and egos in the sad saga.
Some 400 IBA employees have signed on with the new corporation, although on generally less favorable conditions, but hundreds more are likely to find themselves without jobs. A large number of them are in the over-45 age bracket when finding employment becomes that much harder. Some are well-known media personalities; others are people who work – hard – behind the scenes. They reflect the mosaic that is the Israeli population, Jew and non-Jew, religious and secular, of all political persuasions. The amount of collective knowledge and experience they possess is invaluable. That, too, will be lost.
In what could be its dying days, the IBA is running a campaign under the slogan “Today it’s us, tomorrow it’s you.” Showing exactly the sort of documentary talent that makes Channel 1’s programming so different from the reality shows of its commercial competitors, this week the station began a series produced by Itta Glicksberg using the “Today it’s us” message as its title.
As a board member of the Jerusalem Association of Journalists, I have seen much soul-searching by IBA employees and the admission that some workers (particularly in Television House) exploited the system, but I’ve also witnessed the genuine attempts to reform the authority instead of forever ending transmissions.
Closing the body down completely and replacing it with something new is not only a mistake, it’s a costly one. And it’s a bad precedent. Should we close the Israel Police and create a new force instead? The Education Ministry? The Health Ministry? Does it depend on political capriciousness and appetites? I covered the media beat as a Jerusalem Post reporter in the 1990s, watching the industry develop and grow with the introduction of commercial and cable television and the growth of local radio stations.
Even then, there was often talk of abolishing television license fees, which of course are never popular.
The question asked – the question that must always be asked – was what would replace the license fee as funding. It was obvious to me then, and it is evident to all now, that abolishing the license fees and making the broadcasting authority dependent on funds from a government ministry would do nothing to preserve its independence.
The current crisis in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened to take the country to elections if the new corporation goes ahead, and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has vowed that the IBA will be closed in favor of the IBC, reflects badly on both of them.
Reports this week that the prime minister was outraged by the announcement that talented, veteran journalist Geula Even-Sa’ar, wife of his political rival Gideon Sa’ar, would be the IBC’s main news anchor, added a bit of spice to the story but no consolation to those whose fates are bound to the outcome of the headline news.
That the Histadrut labor organization did little to help the fight for the IBA staff to keep their workplace and jobs is noteworthy. Some believe that Histadrut head Avi Nissenkorn, uncomfortably close to elections in his organization, hoped that the IBC workers would be largely represented by the Histadrut instead of the independent journalists’ professional associations as is largely the case at present; others wonder if he has done some kind of political deal that would grant him more votes among the large and strong labor unions.
There can be no happy ending. The way the IBA has been handled should serve as a warning that something is seriously amiss with the government’s decision-making process. We stand to lose a national asset whose voices and faces have accompanied us throughout the days, months and years, through the ups and downs, and whose archives record the sounds and images of our history. And for those readers who are still wondering what it’s got to do with them, consider for a moment what’s wrong with this picture: No independent television news in English and the sound of silence instead of the greeting, “This is the Voice of Israel broadcasting from Jerusalem.”