MEDIA COMMENT: The sleepy ombudsman

More often than not, the ombudsman chooses the easy way out, giving broadcasters too much freedom.

Minister Gilad Erdan 370 (photo credit: SHARON UDASIN)
Minister Gilad Erdan 370
(photo credit: SHARON UDASIN)
Israel’s Knesset has at times shown forethought and wisdom in its lawmaking.
An example is the legislation which empowers an “ombudsman,” that is, a public complaints commissioner, to review and act upon abuses of power by our media.
When the Second Television and Radio Authority (SATR) was set up, the Knesset mandated the appointment of an ombudsman whose duties were defined as verifying and responding to public complaints concerning the various broadcasts.
The ombudsman is appointed and reports to the minister in charge of the SATR, giving the complaints commissioner power also over the governing body of the SATR and, seemingly, an independent status.
The mandate is rather broad. The ombudsman will deal with complaints relating to the SATR, to an employee of the SATR or one of the concessionaires – practically anyone related to the broadcasts. The topics are also essentially unlimited. They specifically include broadcasting content, violations of broadcasting codes and ethics. The ombudsman is a public servant and does not deal with complaints of concessionaires against each other or against the SATR.
The law is also rather generous in the powers it gives the complaints commissioner in dealing with complaints.
Any employee under the jurisdiction of the SATR or the concessionaires must respond to queries of the ombudsman. Any document requested must be provided.
Suppose a complaint is deemed to be justified, what happens then? The commissioner has significant power.
She or he may demand that the broadcaster involved broadcast at the time and place decided upon by the ombudsman a clarification and correction of the error as dictated by the ombudsman.
It is the duty of the ombudsman to point out necessary steps for correction of errors – if he deems that his recommendations are ignored, they are to be brought to the responsible minister. If there is a suspicion of criminal activity, the information should be submitted to the attorney-general’s office.
This is the theory. It should work. The ombudsman’s wideranging powers should lead to media organizations closely following relevant ethical codes, for if not, they would face retribution.
The difficulty is that a “good” ombudsman is probably someone who isn’t well liked; no one enjoys being criticized. More often than not, the ombudsman chooses the easy way out, giving broadcasters too much freedom.
Perhaps one of the most important principles of news broadcasting is that “news” and “views” should be separated. More so, the views of an anchor should have no more public weight than the views of any other citizen. The anchor’s expertise is usually not in the specific subject matter being covered. Yet our anchors here in Israel think they are different.
They believe the public simply must know what they think on various issues.
A classic example of this kind of unprofessional behavior is Yonit Levy, the anchor of Channel 2’s daily news program.
On January 9, for example, Levy referred to the “Otzma Leyisrael” political party as the “most extreme” right-wing party in Israel. A similar “extreme right-wing” reference was used to describe demonstrators back on August 14, 2012.
One Avi Komash complained, noting that left-wing parties are never referred to as “extreme.” The ombudsman, David Regev, did not accept the complaint, claiming that “Ms. Levy, by definition, is not a reader and presenter of news, but a journalist. Her journalistic work...
gives her the right to express her opinion.”
Regev’s response was similar when one Winnie Rotem complained about Levy’s remark of July 2, 2012, concerning a Filippino girl who the court decided should be returned to her country. Levy added to the item: “A bit of compassion would not harm Israel’s decision makers.”
Why Regev considers such remarks to be “journalistic” is unfathomable, but such seem to be his standards.
But let us leave political comments aside, for perhaps Regev is just another journalist-turned-ombdusman who finds it necessary to defend his journalist friends. Let us review his performance with regard to preventing advertising from becoming part and parcel of the news.
ON NOVEMBER 25, 2012, Channel 10 news had a long item on a very expensive car. Aviv Frankel, the reporter, and his crew were invited abroad by the manufacturer.
The resulting news item had only superlatives and expressions of wonderment for the car.
The fact that Frankel and his crew were the guests of the company was not mentioned. Nor was it obvious why the item was news.
Chaya Grossman complained, and David Regev defended. An hour before the news, Channel 10, in a promo, made it known that the company funded the trip abroad.
However, this clarification was not provided during the evening news at 8 p.m., so that the viewer at that time had no idea that these were the background facts. Regev also accepted Arnon Gal’s response in the name of Channel 10 that the item was of interest in view of the economic crisis in Europe today. One can only wonder whether Channel 10 would have covered the same item had the channel been made to foot the bill.
Even when Regev notes violations, he does little to prevent them from happening again. A classic example is those radio programs that ask listeners to call in to the station using a 1-900 number. Some of the stations do not make it clear that listeners will be billed heftily for such conversations. A year ago, on April 17, 2012, Regev made his uneasiness about such practices known, but they continue unabated to this very day.
Regev’s inaction creates an atmosphere in which the broadcasters know that they can literally get away with anything. As detailed by Ma’ariv journalist Kalman Libeskind, Channel 2 news broadcast, on March 29, a 14-minute item describing the travails of a Beduin family living in an unrecognized settlement. According to Libeskind, the item included nothing about the fact that the state had already constructed legal housing elsewhere for the family and that most of the family moved there, nor did it detail the suffering of the neighbors from criminal activities such as theft and drug trafficking. Regev has yet to respond to complaints on this issue.
To top all of this, News 1’s Yossef Idan reported on the travails of the Army Radio Station’s venerable Hebrew expert and journalist Dr.
Avshalom Kor. He was invited to an interview on a Channel 2 Reshet program, hosted by Sharon Kiddon.
Kor, an experienced journalist, agreed on condition that he would be interviewed alone. Reshet agreed.
Dr. Kor arrived at the studio on Friday only to find that Kiddon had not kept her word and had invited three other people to the same program.
Kor decided he would have nothing to do with this and left the studio. Kiddon not only did not apologize to Dr. Kor, but went live on the program and bashed him for his unwillingness to appear.
Space limitations prevent us from presenting additional examples.
The broadcasters’ disregard for ethics and professional journalism does not come as a surprise. When the ombudsman is asleep on the job, one cannot expect anything else from our self-appointed and opinionated media.
Perhaps the incoming communications minister, Gilad Erdan, should take note?
The authors are vice chairman and chairman respectively of Israel’s Media Watch (