The public broadcasting service:

A political football kicked by the Left and Right

Gilad Erdan (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Gilad Erdan
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The subject that arguably received the most coverage by the media over the past two weeks was the decision by Prime Minister and Communications Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to postpone the launch of the Israel Broadcasting Corporation, which was scheduled to go on air on October 1, replacing the Israel Broadcasting Authority, which is in the process of being dismantled.
The decision raised an even greater furor in political and media circles than did the original campaign to close down the IBA that was led during the previous administration by then-communications minister Gilad Erdan backed by then-finance minister Yair Lapid.
Israel’s public broadcasting service, which has become a political football kicked by both the Left and the Right, was initiated by the British Mandate authorities within the framework of the Palestine Broadcasting Service, which was modeled on the BBC. From its inception in March 1936, broadcasts in English, Hebrew and Arabic were relayed from Jerusalem. The English broadcasts were under the call sign of “Jerusalem Calling”; the Hebrew transmissions were called Kol Yerushalayim (the Voice of Jerusalem).
It is customary in almost every country for the public broadcasting service to be headquartered in that country’s capital. In line with this policy, Jerusalem remained the radio hub after the establishment of the state, though additional studios were set up in Tel Aviv and Haifa.
Kol Yerushalayim later became Kol Yisrael (the Voice of Israel) and subsequently the Israel Broadcasting Service, which in June 1965, following Knesset legislation to that effect, evolved into the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
When Israel Television, now known as Channel 1, began broadcasting in May 1968, it also came under the rubric of the IBA, and was likewise headquartered in Jerusalem.
Throughout most of its history the IBA has been beset by internecine strife between management and workers, an ever-growing deficit and an unwieldy surfeit of employees, which at any one time exceeded well over 1,000 people.
Numerous attempts were made at reforms and at streamlining, but agreements were rarely concluded. The ongoing battle can in part be attributed to the constant clashes between representatives of the Histadrut labor federation and those of the Finance Ministry, which was reluctant to keep on shelling out more funding to the IBA, and which at times actually withheld funds.
Amazingly, none of this was reflected on screen or on the radio, except on the very few occasions when IBA workers called a strike and there were no radio or television broadcasts. On the whole, radio and television programs were highly professional, though politicians occasionally took exception to something said by an opinionated broadcaster.
After years of wrangling – during which the Finance Ministry on more than one occasion issued ultimatums declaring that if the IBA could not become more cost-efficient, it would have to close – a historic comprehensive reform agreement was reached toward the end of 2009 and duly signed by representatives of the Histadrut, the Jerusalem Journalists’ Association and the Finance Ministry.
The utopian exhilaration was short-lived.
Even though the JJA and the Histadrut had agreed to drastic cutbacks on the staff payroll, the Finance Ministry in 2010 reneged on the agreement.
From then on, everything went from bad to worse with the appointment of Erdan as communications minister.
He appointed the so-called Landes Committee to look into the situation and make suitable recommendations. As Erdan’s purpose was already known, no one was surprised when the Landes Committee recommended the dismantling of the IBA and the outsourcing of its productions. Landes happens to be a prizewinning producer of television programs. Some savvy reporters picked up on the conflict of interests, but somehow that aspect was quickly glossed over.
Erdan appointed a special Knesset committee headed by Yesh Atid MK Karin Elharar to look into the matter, and regardless of what anyone said, Erdan’s booming voice tended to drown out opposition at committee meetings, even that of Meretz MK Ilan Gilon, who consistently sided with IBA workers and continues to do so.
Needless to say, Erdan succeeded in pushing through the legislation.
Eldad Koblentz, a talented and highly experienced electronic media professional, was tasked with establishing the new public broadcasting entity, which Ofir Akunis, while briefly a minister in the Communications Ministry, insisted on calling it the Israel Broadcasting Corporation rather than the Public Broadcasting Corporation, because he considered it unpatriotic to omit the word “Israel” from its title.
From the very beginning Koblentz said that he needed four years to establish a proper infrastructure for public broadcasting. It was he who had initially proposed 2018 as the year of the launch. However, the powers that be – or rather the powers that were – in the Communications Ministry wouldn’t hear of such a long delay and insisted that he complete the operation much sooner.
Zionist Union MK Nachman Shai and other MKs who this week participated in a meeting of the Knesset Economic Committee to discuss the prime minister’s apparent change of heart were suspicious of Netanyahu’s motives, even though at the cabinet meeting earlier in the day the prime minister had categorically stated that he was not interested in controlling the media but in opening it up to more competition, and that he wanted to ensure the IBC’s success by preventing it from going on air until it was completely ready.
Those who still question him and his stated desire to see the IBC as an independent public broadcasting service free of political interference seem to have forgotten that Netanyahu, as a former finance minister, knows a thing or two about economics, and that there was more than a grain of truth in his statement that he didn’t want the IBC to start off unprepared and then fail. Netanyahu is well aware of how much money would go down the drain if that happened.
Veteran economics reporter Oded Shahar, who anchors the weekend news roundup, said last week that he had plenty of run-ins with Netanyahu over their differences of opinion, but that Netanyahu never used political pressure against him. Earlier in the month, radio current affairs anchor Aryeh Golan also stated that he had never been subjected to political pressure. Yet regardless of whether the government is right wing or left wing, the opposition always accuses the administration of political interference in public broadcasting.
Limor Bar-On, a lecturer at Hadassah Academic College’s department of politics and communication, who appeared on Shahar’s program, said that Netanyahu’s motives are always questioned by the media, regardless of how correct his decisions might be.
Aside from the time factor, what prompted Netanyahu on this occasion were the strong objections on many sides to the IBC being launched in Modi’in instead of Jerusalem, from where it was mandated by law to broadcast.
“The Voice of Jerusalem will broadcast from Jerusalem,” he declared. Meanwhile, he has apparently reached some sort of compromise about the launch date with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon.