Think about it: The future of public broadcasting in Israel

What a shame that Israel has a prime minister who apparently doesn’t really care.

Netanyahu is seen delivering his speech to the U.S. Congress on television screens in an electronics store in a Jerusalem shopping mall March 3, 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu is seen delivering his speech to the U.S. Congress on television screens in an electronics store in a Jerusalem shopping mall March 3, 2015
(photo credit: REUTERS)
What is sad about the current public broadcasting crisis is that the debate is anything but pertinent.
Coalition chairman David Bitan – acting on behalf of the prime minister – made a complete fool of himself arguing that stopping the establishment of the new Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation, which was initiated by Netanyahu’s previous government after all efforts to reform the old Israel Broadcasting Authority had failed, and resuscitating the latter will save hundreds of millions of shekels. No matter how one turns the figures around, this is totally false.
Netanyahu keeps repeating a totally unsubstantiated argument that the new broadcasting corporation is in danger of filling up with people from NGO Breaking the Silence. Only if one equates Breaking the Silence members with those critical of Netanyahu from the Right, Left and Center can one justify this claim.
Netanyahu has also justified his call for closing down the new corporation with the argument that what we need is more competition in the media – a total non-sequitur, since there is no contradiction between vibrant competition among commercial media providers and public broadcasting services.
His claim that the IPBC had somehow slipped through due to his preoccupation with Operation Protective Edge back in the summer of 2014 is somewhat embarrassing. Even though the Broadcasting Corporation Law was passed three weeks after the outbreak of the Operation, the law had been in the making for many months beforehand, and communications minister Gilad Erdan had Netanyahu’s full backing all along.
What is especially worrying about the whole process is that it is yet another example of Netanyahu’s government adopting decisions regarding fundamental reforms, and then reversing them for convenience reasons at best, and the prime minister’s personal whims and paranoia at worst.
The fact that the livelihoods and professional futures of hundreds of journalists and media technicians are at stake doesn’t seem to matter to Netanyahu and his accomplices. Though our prime minister keeps pointing out that it is “life itself” that matters, he seems totally oblivious to the lives of individuals, unless the latter are threatened by Palestinian terrorists.
So what are the real issues? The first is the question of what we expect of public broadcasting. In a dictatorship public broadcasting is usually the only sort of broadcasting allowed, and it is run by the dictator for his own purposes. Fortunately there is no indication that this is what Netanyahu is trying to attain.
In a democracy the main justification for public broadcasting is to enable the production of media content that commercial providers cannot be expected to produce, simply because it is unprofitable to do so. Of course, one can ensure that the licenses granted the private providers include the condition of producing a certain amount of quality productions and programs in foreign languages, but in most Western democracies it is the public broadcasting that is responsible for these.
Public broadcasting is also expected to be free of direct political pressures and be politically balanced, enabling all legitimate points of view to be heard, to include reporters and presenters from all sections of the political spectrum, and all sectors of the population – a little like what occurs today with Channel 99 (the Knesset channel).
Netanyahu’s constant – and not totally unjustified – complaint is that his government in general and he and his family in particular do not enjoy fair coverage in the media. (Donald Trump has similar complaints regarding the American media). He has apparently gotten the impression that the new broadcasting corporation will be no different, and while numerous rightwing and religious reporters have been signed up by it, there are apparently very few Netanyahu fans among them – perhaps none.
Why there are hardly any Netanyahu fans in the media (Israel Hayom excluded) is certainly an issue worth investigating. Perhaps had Netanyahu taken advantage of his lengthy, confidential meetings with most sections of the Israeli media several months ago to hold a real dialogue with the “culprits” rather than lecturing and admonishing them, he might have reached the conclusion that while the phenomenon has certainly gotten somewhat out of hand, he is certainly at least partially to blame as a result of his own conduct and modus operandi.
But to return to the future of Israel’s public broadcasting. Though it is certainly commendable that Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has put his foot down on the issue, it is not at all certain that at the end of the day the team that he has set up with Netanyahu (as communications minister) to try to resolve the crisis will manage to save the IPBC, or that Netanyahu will be willing to relinquish his plan to shut the corporation down, even if he can ensure that it will treat him and his government partially. In fact the chances are slim. Kahlon’s political clout is limited, and Netanyahu is apparently willing to bring down the government and call new elections if he does not get his way.
What a shame that the whole issue cannot be discussed and decided on its merits. There is no earthly reasons why Israel cannot have good, balanced public broadcasting, that caters to all sections of the population.
What a shame that Israel has a prime minister who apparently doesn’t really care.

The writer is a political scientist.