MEDIA COMMENT: A passion for regulation

Israel, the “start-up nation,” is unfortunately also well known for its heavy-handed bureaucracy.

Media [Illustrative] (photo credit: REUTERS)
Media [Illustrative]
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It was almost 20 years ago that the Peled Commission, appointed by then communication minister Limor Livnat, recommended to the government that it create an Israeli version of America’s Federal Communications Commission. Regulating the media is a necessity, just as regulating restaurants is needed to ensure that the public does not come to harm. Yet, the regulation of the media in Israel is ridiculously complex.
There are separate regulators for the commercial radio and television, for cable and satellite TV, and for the new Israel Broadcasting Corporation.
This situation is very convenient for many people. The politicians profit for they can appoint their friends to the various oversight bodies, and for the employees of the commissions this is a source of livelihood.
It is thus very surprising that finally, the Netanyahu government seems to be getting around to actually implementing the unification of the Second TV and Radio Authority (SATR) and the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Authority (CSBA).
In fact, an in-depth discussion of the proposed legislation took place on Tuesday of this week in the Knesset Economics Committee.
Especially in view of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s capitalist ideology, which looks toward reducing the involvement of the government in our lives, one would have expected that the new regulator would operate under conditions that minimize its interference in the daily operations of the broadcasters. Competition would be encouraged. The regulator would only step in when really needed. This would be especially important for the upkeep of a minimal code of ethics, which would ensure clean programming and upholding basic norms, such as the right of retort.
In practice, the proposed law will lead to the opposite. It will strengthen the involvement of the new regulator in the various media organs. Consider the following example which was raised in committee by the representative of the YES cable company.
She complained that the communications company Cellcom, by broadcasting Internet TV, is unfairly competing with her company. YES is regulated by the SCBA while Cellcom, being defined as a communications company, is not. So far, so good. But then she demanded to have Cellcom regulated by the new authority. Neither she nor anyone else who participated in the deliberations, apart from Ziv Maor, the CEO of Israel’s Media Watch, apparently had the thought that the solution is not to regulate Cellcom, but to deregulate YES.
Indeed, the committee accepted as fact that the regulator would be involved in the programming of the private media stations, or that new players would have to live up to the present norms, which include hefty royalties to the government and intrusions into content. No one present even tried to stop this ludicrous and destructive involvement.
Ludicrous? Yes. Modern technology has made it possible for almost anyone with reasonable means to broadcast through the Internet, whether radio or TV. There is no way that the Israeli regulator would be able to control these broadcasts. There is also no need, for example, for the regulator to limit advertising minutes. If there is sufficient competition, the public would simple turn away from a broadcaster that advertises too much.
The real challenge of the regulator is thus to encourage competition as the best means of assuring quality TV.
Yet it is precisely this goal which SATR for one has consistently and successfully fought against.
TV Channel 20 is still limited in its ability to provide news. Why? Because the CSBA is more interested in defending the rights of the major players, such as TV channels 10 and 2, instead of representing the interest of the public.
It should be noted that the MKs who participated in the deliberations of the economics committee were from the opposition. The Likud and Bayit Yehudi factions are simply not interested and do not partake in the legislative process. If Israel’s conservatives show no interest, it is not surprising that the socialist point of view, which calls for excessive government involvement in almost everything, becomes dominant.
Israel, the “start-up nation,” is unfortunately also well known for its heavy-handed bureaucracy. Opening a business in Israel is no trifling matter.
It is for this reason that Prime Minister Netanyahu has formed a new department in the Prime Minister’s Office whose task is to streamline Israel’s regulatory practices, making them more efficient and user friendly. Seemingly a positive step forward, alas, not one representative of this new department took part in the Knesset discussions. Could it be that someone really believes that the SATR and CSBA are doing a good job? Has anyone in government actually reviewed these regulators? For many years, we have been advocating for an Israeli FCC, modeled after the American FCC. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. In the United States, the FCC does not involve itself in programming, but when there are serious issues having to do with indecent programming the FCC is there to set things right.
In Israel, the situation is exactly the opposite. There is over-involvement in the daily operations and lack of power to enforce the minimally needed ethics code.
The message of the new Israeli FCC comes from Ecclesiastes: “What was is what shall be and there is nothing new under the sun.”
The authors are vice chairman and chairman respectively of Israel’s Media Watch (