Media Comment: The unprofessional ombudsmen

The Knesset made sure these powerful media groups in Israel would be open to public criticism, through the offices of the ombudsman, or complaints commissioner.

Netanyahu, Mofaz, social media 370 (photo credit: Screenshots)
Netanyahu, Mofaz, social media 370
(photo credit: Screenshots)
Israel’s broadcast media is dominated by publicly funded news purveyors. The news corporations of TV channels 2 and 10 are public organizations whose heads are appointed by the Second Television and Radio Authority (SART ), which itself is a state-sponsored body.
Channel 1 TV is part of the publicly funded Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA).
It is no wonder then that the Knesset made sure these powerful media groups would be open to public criticism, through the offices of the ombudsman, or complaints commissioner.
The Knesset gave the complaints commissioner quite some power, consisting of three main ingredients. First, any public complaint must be handled by the ombudsman, unless it is deemed overly antagonistic or ridiculous. Second, all employees of the relevant agency must answer the ombudsman’s queries. Third, the commissioner can instruct the relevant broadcaster to issue an apology or clarification.
The two current ombudsmen, David Regev of the SART and David Markovitch of the IBA, have recently publicized their annual reports for the year 2012. Both reports are revealing, for they demonstrate once again that Israeli journalists have not yet internalized fundamental democratic values.
Regev and Markovitch are journalists turned ombudsmen.
One might think both would thus welcome virtually all complaints coming from the public. Any complaint expresses a viewpoint, whether justified or not. Complaints are an important feedback channel for the broadcasters. One might even think they would be actually interested in complaints.
Even if the powers who run our TV broadcasts presume to know everything better than all of us, it is the job of the ombudsman to pay attention to the public’s opinion and input.
We at Israel’s Media Watch very much value the public’s participation in the media and encourage it to submit comments, both positive and negative.
A considerable effort is made to pass on all letters which come through our website to the relevant complaints authorities. We believe in free speech and so hardly ever censor letters.
Only when they border on the vile or illegal will we take action. Otherwise all letters are, with the author’s permission, published on our website.
But our ombudsmen do not appreciate this. Markovitch’s predecessor, Elisha Spiegelman, demanded from Israel’s Media Watch that any complaint coming through the organization’s website be immediately forwarded to him, irrespective of the contents.
But this angers Markovitch, who although he continued the practice required by Speigelman had this to say in his annual report about complaints originating from IMW’s website: “Every complaint of the organization is considered according to the usual rules, even though at times the complaints are spiteful, sarcastic or not fit for print, which did not undergo initial screening. As a result some of the journalists of the Authority, justifiably I should say, feel that the organization is personally hounding them.”
He continues: “The organization organized an Internet campaign against Keren Neubach which resulted in dozens of complaints. As part of the campaign, the email addresses of the members of the contents committee [overseeing the radio programs of the IBA] were publicized so that the surfers would complain against her and thus aid in removing her from presenting her radio program....
“Ms. Neubach was a candidate two years ago for the [Israel Media Watch] title of the ‘Most Aggravating Journalist in Israel.’ This year it was Oded Shachar who was a candidate for the same questionable title.
“One of the complainers habitually curses the employees of the radio and asks the Ombudsman to send his answer also to IMW.”
We should add that precisely such complaints are censored by us, and Markovitz knows this. Moreover, he should know that one does not control the public and in any public endeavor one runs the risk of being exposed to negative elements.
But let us return to Neubach.
Indeed, we believe that she is not the appropriate person to present a program on the publicly funded airwaves, since she uses them for her own purposes. On October 7, Neubach interviewed Dr. Naama Carmi, who, so she claimed, was severely mistreated by the Carmel hospital.
As ethics demands, the hospital was given the right of reply. The hospital submitted its retort in writing, expecting it would be read on air. But Neubach did not merely read the response, she ridiculed it, and even continued criticizing it in the follow-up discussion.
If this is how Ms. Neubach relates to the right of reply, we would urge anyone being attacked by her to forgo that right.
A complaint was duly sent to Markovitz. In his words: “in the hospital’s retort the name of the claimant [Dr. Carmi] was misspelled twice. In fact, the correct name of the claimant was not written in the retort and this was the reason for Neubach’s criticism.”
On October 31, Nili Osherov presented in her corner on Neubach’s program a satricial lyric sharply criticizing the former chief rabbi of the IDF, Rabbi Avichai Ronsky. Everyone in the studio laughed.
The rabbi was not given the right of reply. Neubach did not think that it was her job to mitigate the one-sided attack, but rather partook in it.
Markovitz, as usual, found the complaint unjustified: “Ms. Osherov’s comments are always satirical, one does not have to love them or agree with them but just so, one must accept them.”
Regev can compete with Markovitz when it comes to lack of recognition of the public interest. Over a year ago, TV Channel 10’s Orr Heller illegally recorded a telephone conversation of Chagit Rhein with IDF Lieutenant-Colonel Shalom Eisner after the latter was photographed hitting a demonstrator with the butt of his rifle.
We complained to Regev.
We received an answer only a few weeks ago. He did not find the complaint justified, he only let us know the response of Yehudith Levitt, vice executive director of TV at the SART .
She had this to say: “The authority found that the issue [Heller report on the Rein-Eisner phone conversation] was not presented appropriately.”
She did add that she hoped that there would not be another such incident. Neither Heller nor Channel 10 were told by the ombudsman to apologize and no sanctions or even regulatory measures were applied.
Regev, a former journalist, knows that after 18 months such issues are buried, and that is indeed what this public servant did. Instead of using the occasion to assure that such unethical behavior would not be tolerated, his procrastination and delay gave the opposite result.
Do we then believe that the office of the public complaints commissioner should be abolished and public money saved? No, things can be very different, as shown by Eran Elyakim, the public complaints commissioner of Army Radio. But that is a topic for a separate article.
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (