Reality check: Paying for a free press

For Netanyahu, whose role models these days seem to be either Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Russia’s Vladimir Putin, journalistic independence is a non-starter.

November 6, 2016 21:07
4 minute read.
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu. Is he a victim of unfair press?

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu. Is he a victim of unfair press?. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

In my early days as a journalist, I was the Histadrut reporter for this paper. And if the bosses at the Histadrut, Israel’s labor federation, had had their way, I wouldn’t have been a reporter for much longer.

At the time, we’re talking the mid- to late-1980s, the Histadrut was not just a trade union movement, but also a major player in the Israeli economy. It owned this paper, alongside many other and much bigger companies in Israel, including Bank Hapoalim, which is how I had my run-in with the trade union bosses.

It was a fascinating time to be covering the Histadrut as this mighty empire was beginning to implode due to the inherent contradiction of its being a trade union movement on the one hand, and the owner of many of the country’s main economic assets on the other. When the Histadrut-owned construction firm Solel Boneh, which played a major role in building the country’s infrastructure in the early years of the state, began to crumble, I wrote a commentary article criticizing Bank Hapoalim for not coming to Solel Boneh’s rescue.

It definitely wasn’t the most earth-shattering article ever to have been published, but it obviously touched a nerve and one of Bank Hapoalim’s directors called The Jerusalem Post’s editors (in those days, the paper had two chief editors, which in its own way explains why Histadrut-owned businesses were always going to be caught out by the laws of economics at some point) and demanded they fire me.

Which, so I was told later, they were prepared to do – but my then-direct boss Shlomo Maoz, the paper’s economic editor (who hated the Histadrut with a passion) stood up for me and insisted that as my article had appeared on his pages, if anybody should be fired it should be him. Maoz was (and still is) a strong personality and one of the few real journalistic stars at the Post at that time, and his threat saved my job.

I didn’t get off scot-free, however. Myself and another young journalist on the economics desk were forced to give up a free Friday morning and spend a few hours with a very pleasant spokesman for Bank Hapoalim, who patiently explained to us why the bank, and its Histadrut-affiliated owners, were a good thing for the Israeli economy. The later calamitous collapse of the Histradrut holding company, Hevrat Ha’Ovdim, proved him wrong, but that’s another story.

The real story in terms of this column concerns the power of media proprietors and its effect on the free press. In my particular case no harm was done, but I always made sure from then on that I had the backing of my editors for any particularly critical piece about the Histradrut.

WHICH IS why the battle today over the future of the new Israel Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) is so important. If Israel is to have a state-owned broadcaster, and there is a perfectly reasonable case to be made that in today’s world of a multitude of easily available media channels there is no need for such a beast, then that broadcaster should be free of political interference.

And this, of course, is why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking to kill off the IBC before it takes to the airwaves, with much the same passion as he once showed in fighting President Barack Obama’s nuclear treaty with Iran. As Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev so elegantly put it during a cabinet discussion over the summer: “What’s the point of this corporation if we don’t control it? The [communications] minister [Netanyahu] should control it.

What, we’re going to put money into it and then they’ll broadcast whatever they want?” The current argument between Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon over whether it makes more economic sense to launch the IBC or “rehabilitate,” in Netanyahu’s words, the present Israel Broadcasting Authority is just a smokescreen. Netanyahu wants to ensure the IBC never reaches the screens not because of the expense of launching a new service but solely because the IBC management structure has been set up in such a way so as to deliberately prevent the political meddling and mismanagement that has led to the demise of the IBA as a viable broadcasting institution.

Unlike the IBA, where the managing director is a direct political appointment, the new corporation’s management are appointed by a committee overseen by a retired judge, thereby removing it from overt political pressure. For Netanyahu, whose role models these days seem to be either Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Russia’s Vladimir Putin, such journalistic independence is a non-starter. Once more, it’s fallen to President Reuven Rivlin to play the role of the head of the opposition, warning in his Knesset speech last week against those who want the media to be a “shofar of commissars.”

If Netanyahu wants a national broadcaster to exist solely to sing his praises, then he should ask his billionaire backer and owner of free sheet Israel Hayom to fund it, and not the Israeli taxpayer.

The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.

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