Media Comment: Who does Israel’s press council protect?

Do press councils protect rights of media consumers, provide democratic service, or do they simply protect media and journalists?

Dalia Dorner (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Dalia Dorner
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Press councils exist in dozens of countries. Germany’s council was founded 55 years ago, and England’s in 1953. They are funded by publishers, who join on a voluntary basis, and sometimes by government. They adopt standards for accuracy and fairness, adjudicate complaints and attempt to mediate solutions.
But are press councils effective? Does self-regulation work? Could they have taken on Rupert Murdoch and the phone hacking affair in the UK? Do they protect the rights of media consumers and provide a democratic service, or do they simply protect the media and the journalists?
The answer, it seems, is no.
Israel’s press council was founded in 1963. Its members are divided between 35 public representatives, 24 representatives of the journalists and 26 representatives of the editors and publishers. It has a presidium of “only” 41 people, and its president is former Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner. It has an ethics tribunal, but the number of cases adjudicated annually is less than 20. The various ombudsmen serving Israel’s public media organizations receive thousands of complaints each year.
Israel’s press council does not have any legal means at its disposal to enforce its decisions. Its main authority stems from its ability to focus public attention on pressing issues. Since the council’s members come from the media, one usually finds that its public discussions receive broad coverage. The process by which it decides whether or not to address a given issue, however, is not transparent.
The Council is lax in imposing its own ethics code on journalists. The code states that: “A journalist shall not deal in any occupation, work, service, public relations, advertising and soliciting of advertisements which give rise to the suspicion or appearance of conflict of interest.” These expressly include: “broadcasts of advertisements, public relations or other similar service connected to the area of occupation or expertise of the journalist presenting these services.” Yet Gabi Gazit and Nathan Zehavi of FM 103 “fame” are frequently heard on radio advertisements and the council and its president have not taken any steps against them.
RECENTLY, THE council discussed two pressing issues. One was alleged accusations by the journalists’ labor unions that the Israel Broadcasting Authority was being politicized of late. The head of Kol Yisrael, Michael Miro, was accused of attempting to prevent the voicing of personal opinion by the radio’s employees. An attempt by Israel’s Media Watch to appear before the council was stonewalled. The IBA code of ethics states explicitly that the IBA does not have a “voice” and that its journalists and anchors cannot express personal opinions. Representatives of the IBA were not invited to the discussion and so, with only one side to be heard, the council itself realized that another meeting should be held.
That second meeting took place last Thursday. Miro demanded that the press council apologize for its previous behavior, blatantly unfair. Summing up, Justice Dorner stated that: “the council appreciates the fact that also the executives of the IBA believe that it should not be political and that it should be strictly professional in carrying out its duties.”
Another embarrassing incident was when the council discussed allegations that Ron Lauder used his influence to impose upon Channel 10 an apology to Sheldon Adelson, who was the subject of an investigative program last January. Ruth Yovel, who resigned from her position as the channel’s news editor in protest, claimed repeatedly that she cannot answer any questions since she was bound by a “secrecy agreement” whose “details even I don’t know.” Justice Dorner, despite the fanfare about the need to defend the freedom of the press from the rich, had to meekly end the session, noting that there wasn’t enough evidence for a serious discussion.
Perhaps not less noteworthy are those topics which the press council does not discuss. A degrading picture of Margalit Tsanani as a prisoner was broadcast all over the media. Dorner publicly decried this, but was not willing to convene the council to deal with the issue or to use its influence with the various websites to remove the offensive picture. The council, however, was quick in voicing an opinion when Ilana Dayan was found guilty of libel and fined NIS 300,000 by the Jerusalem District Court for her Channel 2 TV “documentary” accusing an IDF officer of shooting a defenseless child in Gaza. The Council even took the unusual step of requesting to be a respondent in Dayan’s appeal to the High Court of Justice. When Ha’aretz journalist Uri Blau refused to hand over allegedly secret IDF documents which were in his possession, the council quickly declared “it is not appropriate to indict a reporter for holding a secret document as part of his journalistic profession.”
On the other hand, when its deliberations reveal unethical actions by media people, more often than not, its decisions appear in the back pages, low down on the page. The infractions are never corrected in the same way they appeared: not on the same page, not with the same size headlines or accompanying pictures. The press council, we should not forget, is a voluntary institution which not only is self-regulatory but, it seems, self protecting.
In Israel, sadly, it would seem that the Press Council is quick in defending its own, but somewhat slow when considering the media rights of the media consumers. It is impotent when it comes to improving the woeful working conditions of journalists, yet quick to defend the media against criticism. Is it any wonder that the Council is not really considered by many to be important?
Eli Pollak and Yisrael Medad are, respectively, Chairman and Vice-Chairman of Israel’s Media Watch.