Media Comment: Are ethics needed at the IBA?

Should the IBA allow any personal-opinion programs? Should they be limited to presenters outside the IBA?

IBA logo 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of IBA)
IBA logo 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of IBA)
The Keren Neubach saga has led to a deep discussion at the Israel Broadcasting Authority. Dilemmas have arisen in the aftermath of the attempt to balance Keren Neubach, who hosts the daily morning program on Kol Yisrael’s Reshet Beth. As detailed last week, Neubach’s Seder Yom (The Day’s Agenda) is a personal-opinion program and Neubach is an employee of the IBA.
Should the IBA allow any personal-opinion programs? Should they be limited to presenters outside the IBA? If one allows for such programs, does one distinguish between those on TV and those on radio? How does one assure pluralism as the law obligates in such programs, or is it at all needed? There are those who believe that such a discussion is useless. On July 30, former director of Israel Television’s Channel One and current president of Bezalel, Arnon Zuckerman, revealed in a Haaretz op-ed his dissatisfaction with the law. In Section 3, paragraph 12, the Broadcasting Authority Law states that one of the Authority’s goals is “to strengthen democratic values, pluralism and tolerance.”
Section 4 of the Broadcasting Authority Law states: “The Authority will ensure that the broadcasts will give a suitable expression of different views and opinions prevailing among the public, and will broadcast reliable information.” This is the basis for the obligation to balance what goes over the airwaves.
ZUCKERMAN NOTES that the Fairness Doctrine in the United States was abolished in 1987 due to the multiplicity of broadcasters, which, he claims, brings with it almost automatic pluralism and balance. According to Zuckerman, the main question is who runs the IBA. If it is professionals, they know how to create good radio and TV and assure that the public gets the right mix of everything.
Nowadays, he claims, the IBA heads are political figureheads and nothing can be expected of them. Ethics, it would seem, does not interest him.
Zuckerman might have a point.
After all, the Nakdi ethics code, which was formulated in 1973, did not really affect Zuckerman and his cronies. By and large, the directors of the IBA did what they wanted. The IBA was never accused of being too balanced or pluralistic. So much so, that by 1994, the Knesset found it necessary to create the position of an IBA ombudsman as a public complaints commissioner. In 1996, the ombudsman was given real power, and for the first time, the heads of the IBA had to contend with the fact that the ombudsman could enforce the law and the ethics code on them. Amos Goren, as ombudsman during the years 2002-2007, imposed demands for balance which ultimately led to the departure of Amnon Abramowitz and Gabi Gazit from the IBA.
The ethics code of the IBA is modeled after that of the BBC. An almost sacred principle in journalism is the need to distinguish between news and views. Yet the general spirit emanating from the IBA Ethics Committee chaired by former justice Dr. Bilha Cahana, whose task is to update the Nakdi code, would allow senior reporters to color their reports with their personal opinions.
The committee seems also to be leaning towards formally installing within the IBA personal-opinion programs presented by IBA staff. The perception among the postmodernists, such as Tel Aviv University’s Communications Prof. Akiva Cohen who was chosen as an adviser to the ethics committee, is that there is no objectivity.
This naturally leads to the opinion that it is actually necessary for journalists to have programs which enable them to provide the public with their sagacious insight.
THIS ATMOSPHERE seems to be based on faulty information and contradicts some of the most basic elements of ethics in broadcasting in general, and in public broadcasting specifically. The Second TV and Radio Authority’s ethics code states: “The grantee shall clearly distinguish in the broadcasts been factual reporting, personal opinion, commentary or analysis of information.” The ethics code of Israel’s Press Council states “A newspaper and a journalist shall distinguish between news and views in their reports.” It is unthinkable that a reporter be allowed to color his factual report with his personal opinion, no matter how distinguished or well known.
Yet even the question of personal opinion programs is debatable. No doubt that personal-opinion programs enrich the viewer and listener. Israel has world leaders in many fields and it is a shame that these people are not heard more on our airwaves. Yet, there is a deep distinction between a personal program provided by someone who is not an employee of the IBA and someone who comes from within.
This is clearly established in the editorial guidelines of the BBC: “Our audiences should not be able to tell from BBC output the personal prejudices of our journalists or news and current affairs presenters on matters of public policy, political or industrial controversy, or on ‘controversial subjects’ in any other area.”
Furthermore, “BBC staff and regular BBC presenters or reporters associated with news or public policy-related output may offer professional judgments rooted in evidence. However, it is not normally appropriate for them to present or write personal view [programs] and content on public policy, on matters of political or industrial controversy, or on ‘controversial subjects’ in any area.”
The corporation for Public Broadcasting in the United States is of a similar opinion: “Public radio journalists may not use their professional affiliations to advocate for political or social causes. While we all have a stake in the well-being of our communities, the line should be drawn where journalistic credibility may be affected.
Well-known personalities must be especially sensitive to the appearance of advocacy.”
UNDERLYING ALL of this is the understanding that the public trust in the public broadcaster is tarnished if it presents its own position, especially on controversial issues. It is for this reason that the IBA’s present ethics codes.
The Nakdi document states: “The IBA does not broadcast editorial columns, it has no voice, no policy or opinion of its own. The main task of the news employees of the Authority is to bring facts without preparing in advance their implications.
They should be objective and neutral.”
It is this ethos that Cahana and her committee are about to abolish. If they succeed, the Israeli public will be poorer, less democratic and its public broadcasting authority will become meaningless to too many people.
It will lead to its dissolution.
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch