Knesset panel hears plethora of complaints about IBA

The Knesset State Control Committee on Monday discussed a panoply of ills and complaints besetting the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) from warnings that it may shut down, to problems in implementing a long-awaited overhaul of the authority, to its NIS 100 million annual budget deficit, to allegations that the head of Israel Radio gave free parking spaces to two secretaries.
The tense discussion, which lasted over two hours, pitted most of the MKs, headed by committee chairman Yoel Hasson (Kadima), and IBA employees and works committee leaders against IBA Director-General Mordechai Sklar, Television and Television News head Yoram Cohen and Israel Radio head Aryeh Shaked.
The IBA is being buffeted by a technicians’ strike, the resignation of Yuli Edelstein, the cabinet minister who was in charge of the authority and the fact that although eight months have elapsed, no on has replaced Moshe Gavish as IBA chairman.
Hasson grilled Sklar on the findings of internal reports conducted by the IBA auditor, which pointed out many ills including the allegedly high fees paid to outside consultants, problems with television program production and allegations of conflict of interests involving senior IBA employees.
In addition to the allegations in these reports, several IBA television editors have gone to court against the decision of Sklar and Cohen to remove them from their positions and assign them to new jobs.
Sklar said one report had accused him of paying NIS 140,000 to a consultant for 20 hours of work. Sklar hotly denied the allegation, saying the consultant had worked with him for nine months.
He said he had needed the outside consultants because of the magnitude of the job which, among other things, called for the dismissal or early retirement of 700 workers, re-drafting of job descriptions, sale of real estate and many other matters.
“When I was appointed director-general, people advised me to hire consultants,” said Sklar. “The reform is a complex process with many problems. I didn’t want to handle it alone.”
Hasson asked Sklar to explain why he had dismissed the television editors from their positions without consulting the members of the executive committee.
“It is a sensitive matter when MKs ask about such things,” replied Sklar. “We wanted to shake things up, refresh. It was a professional consideration... It is not for the executive committee to intervene. It would raise alarms of political intervention. There are certain issues that, par excellence, belong to the professional management.”
Sklar said that at the same time as he was shuffling his staff, he was also working to implement the recommendations of earlier State Comptroller reports on the IBA.
Cohen, who has served as head of television and television news for eight-and-a-half years, said, “We journalists want to safeguard independent journalism. We don’t want the executive committee to intervene.”
Nachman Shai (Kadima) warned that the state control committee was not dealing with the most serious problem that the IBA faces, namely that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been in charge of the authority since Edelstein’s resignation.
“There are no more filters between Netanyahu and the IBA,” he said. “This takes us back to the darkest days, when politicians dictated the news.”
Ilan Gilon (Meretz) warned that there were those who hoped to privatize the IBA and questioned whether Sklar was the right man to save it. “Maybe it’s time for you to say the job is too much for you,” said Gilon. “Maybe you’re not the right man.”
Zvi Gerzon, head of the technicians’ committee, blasted Shaked, accusing him of conducting a “Byzantine” court in which he is allegedly benevolent to those he likes personally and despotic towards those he does not like. Gerzon also charged that Shaked violated work agreements and accused him of reserving two free parking places for his secretaries even though space was limited and some of the older workers were forced to park far from the studios.
Itai Landsberg, a television editor, charged that the reason the IBA is suffering from financial problems is not because of workers’ pay but because of mistakes that management has made over the past 10 years. One of the alleged mistakes was IBA’s decision to purchase the old Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem at a cost of NIS 150 million.
Management also spent millions of shekels to purchase transmitters which could reach Arab-speaking countries.
“When the state comptroller investigates the problems in the IBA, I ask him to investigate these matters as well,” said Landsberg.
State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss announced during the meeting that he has already begun to investigate the IBA. He said it would include follow-ups on two critical reports he had issued since 2007, the matters he heard during the meeting and complaints he had received recently.
In all his five years as state comptroller, no other issue has elicited as many complaints and letters as that of the IBA, he told the committee.