Media Comment: David Regev – the new ombudsman

In less than three months, Regev used his authority more than his predecessor did in a decade.

Israel Radio, Army Radio_311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Nir Elias)
Israel Radio, Army Radio_311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Nir Elias)
Even today, broadcasting in Israel is restricted. The government has yet to institute a free media market in which anyone is allowed to broadcast, via radio, TV, the Internet and whatnot. But even in a free market, there has to be regulation of some sort. Just as a restaurant has to be supervised to make sure it maintains elementary sanitary conditions, the media market has to be regulated to assure its compliance with basic ethics rules. This is even more the case in a media market which is limited, providing the viewing public with only a few local television and radio stations.
The regulatory system is two-tiered. In Israel, the first tier is the regulatory bodies such as the Second Authority for Television and Radio (SATR). Its mandate is to award concessions, regulate and authorize programming, assure a fair amount of local programming and that quality standards are met, and to take punitive measures where appropriate.
Yet this in itself is deemed insufficient, not only in Israel, but also for example in Britain. The second tier is a complaints commissioner or ombudsman as the job is known in Israel (many US newspapers now have in-house public representatives). The SATR governing body is appointed by the government. The ombudsman is appointed by the minister responsible, in our case Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon. The ombudsman reports to the minister, not to the SATR. This provides checks and balances, preventing the rather independent Authority from abusing its powers.
Not less important is that by law, the ombudsman provides the public a venue for expressing its viewpoints, complaints and comments on all issues pertaining to the broadcasts. Media criticism from the public is crucial for upholding the standards of a free media. It is the job of the ombudsman to represent the public, and to pay attention to public sentiment and complaints on both technical and material issues.
The public might not be receiving high-level transmission, as provided by law and contract. Or, the broadcasters might be using too much airtime for advertising, rather than for quality broadcasts. The public may also express frustration with low quality programming, biased and unprofessional behavior and in extreme cases, violations of the law.
A public which feels that the press abuses its power in order to promote agendas will have little respect for the press’ importance in a free and democratic society, and even worse, will lose its respect for the democratic process itself. It is the ombudsman’s job to assure that the public is represented and heard and that its needs are treated seriously. The job also serves as an interface between the journalists, producers and editors and the public, providing them with much-needed information regarding what the public really cares about.
Our laws recognize these sensitivities and provide the SATR ombudsman with some real power. He can demand answers from any employee. Refusal is liable to punishment by law. If he deems that a complaint was justified, he can enforce correction. He can demand that any SATR-regulated station broadcast apologies or corrections. The ombudsman is also obligated to bring to the attention of the responsible minister any violation and especially lack of respect for his decisions.
Giora Rozen was the SATR ombudsman for over 10 years. He carried a big carrot, but only a small stick, which was rarely used. Rozen almost never imposed anything, firmly believing that nice words and finger wagging would do the job.
His abysmal failure was cited by none other than Supreme Court Justice Noam Solberg, who had this to say about him: “The SATR law was an attempt at creating an independent and efficient review process. However, it turned out that it was not used... the viewing audience is under the illusion that there is an address to which they can turn, as if they have an independent representative in the SATR which represents them.... The Ombudsman should have worked harder, viewed the unedited material, compared it to the final product, studied the issue in depth and only then provided his opinion... a proper answer [by the ombudsman] might have prevented the need for legal steps and prevented the need of the court to involve itself in them.”
We will add that it is not surprising that the Israeli public does not have a high degree respect for the journalistic standards of the SATR broadcast media.
It took over a year, but finally Minister Kahlon appointed a new ombudsman – David Regev, who has been in the hot seat since January 1 of this year. Regev was employed for 23 years by the Yediot Aharonot newspaper. In his last job there he was the social welfare reporter. In less than three months, Regev used his authority more than Rozen did in a decade.
Gal Uchovsky, who moderates Channel 2 program “What Do You Say,” called Im Tirzu leader Ronen Shoval a “racist” and “monster,” comparing some of his statements with Nazi-era pronouncements. The public complained, Regev forced Uchovsky to apologize. Although Uchovsky’s “apology” was used to further attack Shoval, the message was clear: the new ombudsman would not tolerate such unprofessional and unethical behavior.
Nathan Zehavi has a foul mouth and is proud of it. He has a program on the 103FM regional radio station. In an interview with a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) listener, Zehavi, feeling provoked, lashed out: “Your God should hit you with the tenth plague brought upon Egypt, 10 foreign workers should rape you, you are a stinking Jew,” and more such drivel. Due to Regev, the SATR has initiated proceedings against Zehavi. Foul language seems to be disconnected to politics.
Advocate Yoram Sheftel, on the same radio station, relates to some left-wing organizations and people as “anti-Semites” and “Judeo-Quislings.” Media outlets he dislikes are referred to as “media terrorists.” Here, too, Regev had the SATR initiate proceedings.
Regev should be complimented for his decisiveness. Had his predecessor acted similarly perhaps Regev would not have had to deal with Zehavi and Sheftel. Regev also initiated proceedings aimed at curbing implicit advertisement on TV programs, offensive advertising and more.
One of the most important aspects of the operation of the ombudsman is that the public is aware of his actions. For this purpose, Israel’s Media Watch has for years opened its website to public complaints which are submitted to the ombudsman, whose answers are publicized on the website. Rozen did not like this and tried to stop it, but MK Zevulun Orlev, chairman of the Knesset’s State Control committee at the time, forced him to accept our procedure, noting that it is in the public interest.
Certain people within the SATR administration have also been trying to stop such public efforts – after all, no one likes to be criticized in public. It remains to be seen whether Regev also understands the importance of assuring that his actions are open to public scrutiny.
The authors are, respectively, vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch,