Media Comment: The new IBA law

The current system of self-regulation has not worked and public confidence in the press is lacking.

Photojournalists photographers journalists reporters 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Photojournalists photographers journalists reporters 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Media ethics is front page news. Well, at least in the first issue of the new UK Sun on Sunday it is. The newspaper announced the appointment of a “Readers’ Champion” to deal with complaints and to correct errors. It furthermore asserted that its journalists “must abide by the Press Complaints Commission’s editors code, the industry standard for ethical behavior, and... standards of business conduct” and added, “you will be able to trust our journalists to abide by the values of decency as they gather news.”
If a privately owned newspaper has come to realize that public trust is central to the workings of a democracy, as well as good business sense, surely a publicly owned one should abide by such standards.
Israel, like many other countries, supports national broadcast networks which are funded by money from the public, i.e., taxes. These media outlets make important contributions to the public’s right to know. However, they must also assure the diversity of information and viewpoints, the free flow of information and ideas and an open atmosphere where the free expression of opinion is encouraged.
Such high standards depend foremost on the willingness, if not the dedication, of the media professionals to act ethically. But, given human nature, that is not enough. And for a publicly funded organization, a legal framework – a Broadcasting Law – is necessary.
In Israel, media laws have long been denounced. Back in 2002, then-MK Yuval Steinitz, with two other MKs, sought to limit the monopolistic behavior of the press and was roundly criticized. The media cannot be restricted by legislation was the cry. But in England, the Press Complaints Commission has published a proposal for a new system of press self-regulation called “Towards a new system of self-regulation.”
Given recent revelations – and arrests of journalists – it’s obvious the current system of self-regulation has not worked. Public confidence in the press is lacking and the conclusion is that the “PCC must be replaced by a new, credible regulator armed with the powers that the PCC has lacked.” In essence, the new regulator should have two arms, it is proposed, “one that deals with complaints and mediation and one that audits and, where necessary, enforces standards and compliance with the editors’ code.”
This past week the Knesset’s Economic Affairs Committee, chaired by MK Carmel Shama-Hacohen, finished preparing a new version of the Israel Broadcasting Authority Law. As Greer Fay Cashman noted in this paper on February 23, an agreement has been signed between the IBA, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Finance Ministry whereby the IBA is to be provided with grants and loans totaling NIS 730 million. And now, reform is to be implemented via the legislation.
Israel’s Media Watch, along with many others, hopes that the new legislation will benefit all media consumers, providing a more representative and quality-level public broadcaster. The new version of the law went through many changes. Originally, it sought to turn the IBA into a secular post- Zionist entity.
Not surprising, considering that the first version brought to the Knesset by then-minister Eitan Cabel was formulated to a large extent by Attorney Michael Sfard. Sfard, who was in the Meretz youth group, is legal adviser of Yesh Din and counsel of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch project.
IMW’s efforts succeeded in thoroughly changing this. The new version, which soon will be voted on in the Knesset, defines the IBA as a Zionist entity, whose goals are to deepen the ties of the Israeli public with Zionism and Jewish heritage.
A standard demand of liberals is to disengage the IBA from the politicians. Sfard’s law suggested that the Board of the IBA be appointed by an elitist group, which would assure the stranglehold they have on the media. We thought otherwise. A public-funded broadcast authority should represent the public.
To a large extent this happened and the elitist structure and procedure have been changed. The appointment committee is less elitist and more importantly, it only recommends who to appoint. The final decision is in the hands of the government minister responsible for the IBA.
Other positive aspects in the new formulation include partial improvement regarding the status of the Hebrew language both in news reports (where usage of slang and the infiltration of foreign words has become rampant) as well as non-Hebrew language employed in commercials. The IBA archives which have a monopoly over the filmed history of the state’s first four decades will be more available at a much cheaper cost.
Not all was success. The supervisory role of the IBA over Army Radio (Galatz), its main radio competitor, was to be removed but MK Alex Miller retreated from his proposal at the last minute. Experience has shown that IBA supervision of its competitor is meaningless. Galatz used the present formal arrangement as a fig leaf. Separating the two entities and legislating real public supervision over the publicly funded radio station is sorely needed.
The connection between advertising and public broadcasting continues, including the IBA’s website. Instead of using the new legislation to curb advertisement, the IBA was given the right to advertise also on its website. This of course creates unfair competition for the private sector.
There is also a need to improve, indeed in a drastic fashion, the method of collecting payment of the agra fee through the vehicle license. Unfortunately, the Transportation Ministry’s opposition has thus far prevented a deep reduction in the fee as well as a fundamental improvement in the system of collection. This very sensitive issue has, though, been left open, a final decision to be made after receiving recommendation from a subcommittee mandated to review the issue.
This is but a start. Given that the reality of the past few decades is that the news organizations themselves have become part of the system of power, the law by itself, strong as it could be, cannot be the only watchdog. Media criticism from the public, outside of the system, is crucial for the protection of democracy. Complaints, published columns and lobbying are the core of this. If the regulators or ombudsman are not responsible to the public, they fail us, the media consumers.
They can, if derelict, become not the solution but a part of the problem. If they are manipulated, or allow themselves to be exploited, if they do not pursue their goals vigorously, they could betray the trust and responsibility placed in them. We cannot permit them a conflict of interest or not to be supported, for we need them. We must assure that especially the public broadcasters are a model of ethics and good media.
In the final analysis, public broadcasting belongs to the public.
The writers are respectively vice-chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch,