Media Comment: The new director-general of the IBA

The recent appointment of Yoni Ben-Menachem has awakened a few demons from their slumber.

yoni ben-menachem_311 (photo credit: Aviv Hofi)
yoni ben-menachem_311
(photo credit: Aviv Hofi)
Arguably, the most influential job at the Israel Broadcasting Authority is that of the director-general. The director-general is not only an administrator, but also the chief editor of a public media organization whose annual budget is close to NIS 1 billion a year, almost all originating from the taxpayers’ pockets. The IBA empire includes two TV channels, numerous radio stations in multiple languages and an Internet website. It is one of the most important purveyors of news and often sets the national agenda.
No wonder the selection process for this desirable position may wake some demons from their slumber.
Now comes the news that Yoni Ben-Menachem is to be the new director-general after Mordechai Sklaar’s five-year term expired.
In previous years, the appointment process was straightforward. The minister responsible for the IBA would decide. Prime minister Ehud Olmert appointed Sklaar to his job. Prime minister Ariel Sharon appointed and also fired Yosef Barel.
This process raised two major critiques. The history of the IBA is one of ongoing conflict between the chairperson of its public board, and its directorgeneral.
Both are appointed by the minister in charge, but the present IBA Law, adopted over 40 years ago, does not clarify who the real boss is. This has led to poor management, the outcome of which is clear to all. The IBA is bloated with manpower, but does not produce the quality expected of it.
A second issue is whether it is appropriate for politicians to appoint those in charge of the public media organ whose journalistic responsibility is to report those same politicians’ activities. MK Eitan Cabel (Labor), while serving as the minister in charge of the IBA, decided to change the procedure. His new IBA law, formulated with the assistance of left-wing lawyer Michael Sfard, had initially suggested that the director-general be appointed by an independent committee, headed by a retired judge and four other leading academic, journalistic and economic figures. Although appointed by the government, the committee would be independent, setting some distance between the politicians and the professionals at the IBA.
The IBA law has yet to be ratified. In its present version, the appointments committee is considerably less elitist, but the idea of distancing the politicians from the professionals has been kept. It also clarifies that if necessary, the public body governing the IBA can fire the director-general. The hierarchy is clear – the director-general reports to the chairperson.
In the spirit of the suggested legislation, Amir Gilat, the present IBA chairman, formed an ad hoc appointments committee.
Its members included himself as chairman; Yoav Horovitz of the IBA’s public executive directorate; attorney Moshe Dayan, head of the Civil Service Administration; actress Yona Elian; and Prof. Aviad Hacohen, dean of Sha’arei Mishpat Law College.
The committee unanimously recommended to the prime minister, the acting minister in charge of the IBA, to appoint Ben-Menachem director-general.
Yoni, as he is known to all, has risen from the ranks of the IBA, having been an employee since 1983. Among his accomplishments is the first interview with Yasser Arafat by an Israeli journalist prior to the signing of the Oslo Accords. He edited and produced documentary films on political issues in Palestinian society and its attitude toward Israel. He served as a reporter and commentator, covering for many years, on Israel Radio, the diplomatic give and take between Israel and the Palestinians. He was appointed director of Israel Radio from 2003-2008, but was forced out by Sklaar.
Despite his formidable professional credentials, Ben-Menachem’s appointment has caused quite a storm. The Movement for Quality Government petitioned advocate Tanya Spanitz, who heads the governmental appointments oversight committee, to review Ben-Menachem’s ties with Netanyahu.
Yossi Bar-Mocha, the executive director of the Tel Aviv Journalists Association, decried the politicization of the IBA and the loss of its freedom of expression.
Nine members of the IBA plenum demanded a special plenum meeting to discuss the decision. Interestingly, the speakers at the hastily convened meeting included MKs Zehava Gal-On (Meretz), Nachman Shai (Kadima), Cabel and Muhammad Barakei (Hadash), all of whom expressed their deep concern over the politicization of the IBA.
Indeed, the IBA in past years has been deeply politicized. One cannot but note that independent research has documented the left-wing ideology of the main anchors of the country’s premiere radio station, Reshet Bet. Too many people with political and other ties are part of the IBA programming. Examples abound. Judy Shalom-Nir- Moses, former MK Geula Cohen and author Eli Amir have had a weekly radio program for years. The IBA’s legal commentator, Moshe Negbi, is known for his left-wing legal commentary, which has not been balanced by differing views.
Perhaps the central challenge facing Ben-Menachem is to turn the IBA into a truly public broadcasting corporation, in which, as stipulated by law, the IBA would represent all parts of Israeli society; in which the IBA professionals would view themselves as public servants whose job is to provide the public with information instead of setting the national agenda; and whose mandate is to provide quality programming to the Israeli public. For example, will Ben-Menachem follow up on his predecessor’s initiative and air a satirical program from the Latma group?
Haaretz also does not like the changes at the IBA. In its editorial of July 26, it was upset that its suggested demand that the IBA managers be “appointed by a public neutral authority untainted by political bias and removed from government control” was not implemented by the Likud-led government. Could it be that the outcry against Ben-Menachem’s appointment is a fear of true democracy?
Eli Pollak and Yisrael Medad are, respectively, chairman and vice-chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (