Ethics @ Work: Protecting democracy or just protectionism?

Ethics @ Work Protectin

In 2006 the American Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson acquired a 50-percent stake in the free daily Yisraeli, becoming an equal partner with Shlomo Ben-Zvi, and Israeli. After a year the two parted ways and Adelson founded a new free daily, Yisrael Hayom. The paper, which is considered sympathetic to the political views of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, became quite popular and currently constitutes a meaningful commercial and ideological competitor to the major paid dailies. In response to this development, a few weeks ago, 19 Knesset members from all sides of the political spectrum submitted a bill that would forbid foreign nonresidents from owning a majority stake in an Israeli newspaper. While Adelson is the proximate target of the bill, the sponsors assert that the law is necessary to protect Israeli democracy. Many countries have laws of this nature. A memorable moment in US media history was the day in 1985 when Australian magnate Rupert Murdoch took American citizenship so that he could own a US television station, in accordance with FCC regulations that required local ownership. Being that the US is one of the world's most open countries, as well as a very large and rich one where foreigners could not credibly dominate the local media, we see that limitations on foreign media ownership are a widespread and accepted phenomenon. Should we have such limitations in Israel? The key ethical question is as follows: Do we view a newspaper as a business or as an arm of democracy? Obviously it has aspects of both, but which one is principal? If we view newspapers as a business, there is a powerful argument for opening them to foreigners. Opening up markets to foreign competition benefits the consumer by providing better products and ultimately benefits local industry by making it more competitive. If we view newspapers as an arm of democracy, there is a powerful argument for keeping foreigners out. After all, we don't let foreigners vote or occupy public office. The idea of the press as a kind of branch of the polity has a long history. In traditional British governance, the country was divided into three "estates": the gentry, the clergy and the commons. Edmund Burke, already in the late 18th century, is credited with pointing to the press gallery and stating that the press constitutes the "fourth estate" - an expression that remains popular today. The special status of the press is institutionalized in various legal and constitutional principles, including freedom of the press and the public's right to know. This is certainly the point of view being advanced by the bill's sponsors. MK David Rotem states: "We must not let foreign interests... influence public opinion in Israel, when the owners are not committed to the State of Israel." MK Miri Regev spoke of the need to "preserve democracy." The reason a law of this nature has never been proposed in the past is that the situation has never arisen. My feeling is that the current situation doesn't justify it and that the entire foundation of the legislation is becoming rapidly obsolete. Anyone who has ever seen Yisrael Hayom can see that it is a local paper with native Israeli journalists and a mainstream Israeli editorial line. So there is no rush to keep foreigner influence at bay. In the meantime, the entire newspaper industry is being revolutionized by electronic media and particularly by the Internet. In the past, having a platform - a printing press, a distribution channel and an established name - may perhaps have given you preferential access and disproportionate influence on public opinion. But today, a person could start a Hebrew-language newspaper on the Internet in any country of the world and be immediately accessible to the vast majority of literate Israelis. So my view is that the proposed law is currently superfluous and will be imminently irrelevant. Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).