Between the Lines: When not to bank on the media

Bank Hapoalim and Arison are major players in the economy who regularly make the news, and Lapid's links to them would be problematic.

It's nice to see former Channel 2 news anchor Gadi Sukenik back on our TV screens - although it would be nicer still if he were keeping Yonit Levy company and giving us the latest headlines, rather than pitching accounts for Leumi Mortgage Bank. Another bank pitchman, Yair Lapid, is reportedly preparing to move to move in the other direction, assuming the anchor position on Channel 2's Friday night current affairs program, Ulpan Shishi, soon to be vacated by Aharon Barnea, who will be heading to the US next month to serve as the station's Washington correspondent. Lapid (son of Tommy), best know as a celebrity interviewer and Yediot Aharonot columnist, certainly wouldn't be my choice to host a news show, but some people out there clearly appreciate slick-backed oily locks, an equally unctuous on-screen manner and large pectoral muscles more than I do. A bigger problem with Lapid is that he is currently under contract to Bank Hapoalim, collecting a hefty sum from the vaults of billionaire Shari Arison to appear in its television ads. Questions have been raised over potential conflicts of interest, and the National Press Council is currently taking the matter under consideration. To be honest, making a living as a journalist nowadays is no picnic, and if one of the big banks asked me to be its spokesman - heck, if Lord Kitsch's T-shirt shop made an offer - I can't honestly say my first reaction would be to consult the handbook of journalistic ethics. Still, in other countries, certainly the US, journalists in major media outlets are usually forbidden to take such outside work on any kind of contractual basis (although some do profit handsomely from corporate speaking engagements). Bank Hapoalim and Arison are major players in the economy who regularly make the news, and Lapid's direct financial connection to them would be as problematic as Sukenik's continuing his nightly anchor duties while also getting big bucks explaining how Bank Leumi is going to make our mortgage payments less onerous. I agree with the earlier assessment of my colleague, Greer Fay Cashman, that in this instance Lapid wants to have his cake and eat it too - and that Channel 2 should make him eat that Hapoalim contract before putting him in the role of serious news broadcaster. DESPITE THE Lapid matter, most business conflicts of interest in the media usually involve owners rather than journalists, which brings us to our next issue, the approval last week by the Ministerial Committee on Legislative Affairs of the draft of a new law regulating the ownership and management of newspapers. Initiated by the Interior Ministry, and soon to make its way to the Knesset for what will probably be a lengthy approval process, this updated press law is long overdue. It will revise and in some cases cancel regulations dating back to the British Mandate, including the need to obtain a government license to publish a newspaper. It will also include provisions that probably were unthinkable until recent years, including that if an editor or publisher is convicted of a crime, he must relinquish his post. This is a clear legacy of Ma'ariv publisher Ofer Nimrodi's 2001 conviction on charges of breach of trust and intimidating a witness. The law would also require newspapers to print the name of their publisher (or owner) in the daily masthead, and every half-year to list the names of other businesses in which the owner holds more than a quarter-interest. The logic of the new press law makes sense. Readers have a right to this information in an age in which most major media outlets are part of a broader corporate structure and may sometimes end up reporting on economic interests in which they have a direct connection or stake. However, that may well be information that some media owners prefer not be made too public, and you can be sure that before this law passes, there will be pressures put on the Knesset to modify that particular amendment. Before you start flipping back to the masthead of this newspaper, let me save you the trouble; it currently does not list anyone in the position of publisher, nor does the name of the Post's owner, businessman Eli Azur, appear there. And yes, he does have other business interests, including Charlton, which owns the rights to foreign soccer league broadcasts in Israel, including the last World Cup finals. Presumably, Azur has a perfectly good reason not to put his name regularly in this newspaper - but under the terms of the new law, he would have to. TWO WEEKS ago this column examined the conclusions of the State Comptroller's Report on the conduct of official information (hasbara) offices during the Second Lebanon War. As noted, it included a critical assessment of the performance of the IDF Spokesman's Office, then under the command of Brig.-Gen. Miri Regev. This week Regev had her say, with the release of her testimony in the Winograd Committee hearings on the war in preparation for their final report. To her credit, she admitted that several mistakes were made during the summer of 2006, although she put most of the blame on decisions made by former chief of General Staff Dan Halutz. This includes the cancellations of the daily press briefings that kept both the media and public updated on the latest developments, and the failure to "embed" journalists with the troops in Lebanon earlier in the conflict. "The army sometimes tends to be very tight-lipped when it comes to the press," Regev said. No kidding. She may well be right that the primary fault lies with her commanders, but it was her responsibility to lobby harder against decisions she knew to be wrong. Perhaps as a career army officer who worked her up to this job through the ranks, she didn't have the confidence to do that. That's why the best IDF spokespeople, such as Nachman Shai and Oded Ben-Ami, usually come to the post from outside the unit, or have hasbara experience outside the army. That's also the background of Regev's successor, Avi Benayahu - so let's hope he gets the next war right. [email protected]