Media Comment: A very dark screen, indeed

Weinstein “saved the day” for Channel 10, but it is Israeli society which is sadly paying the price.

Channel 10 shutdown message (photo credit: screenshot)
Channel 10 shutdown message
(photo credit: screenshot)
Without warning, Channel 10 stopped broadcasting this past Sunday evening. The normal screen disappeared, and all the television viewer could see was a poster, in black and white. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was portrayed using the manipulative low-angle shot, which distorts features and implants a negative image. The poster’s text, published by the station’s employees committee, read: “In three more days, Channel 10 will close.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who serves as Minister of Communications, refuses to find a solution. Due to this, the workers’ committee has decided to cease Channel 10’s broadcasting for the night. We will resume broadcasting at 6:00 a.m.”
On social media sites, another poster appeared, not linked to the workers, which carried another unfavorable pose of Netanyahu and the slogan, “Strong against Hamas, yet afraid of Raviv Drucker.” Drucker has been a particular bane of Netanyahu’s, airing many accusations of improprieties and failings, most of which are mere personal opinions disguised as political commentary. Drucker lost court cases in his battles with the prime minister over the years. Another of the channel’s popular programs, London & Kirschenbaum, carries a regular fare of anti-Right content, notably with Knesset affairs pundit Nadav Perry (not to be confused with another regular, Nadav Eyal) as well as Drucker.
The first frame of the prime minister was so appalling that Channel 10’s director, Yossi Varshavsky, had it changed, announcing that the campaign is not a personal one but aimed at the office of the minister in charge of media issues.
The finger-pointing at Netanyahu was in reality disconnected from the station’s true problems. For over a decade, the station has failed to repay incentives, loans and state-sponsored investment funds. In fact, Drucker himself uploaded a comment which, in part, read: “The station is not requesting an easing of conditions, a delay in loan repayments or a release from return liability, all that’s requested are guarantees that are justified.”
Before dealing with the network’s financial record, a subject we have related to in several of our columns, the timing element should be highlighted, as it constitutes a blatant attempt to blackmail the system during the election period. This is not new. In December of 2012, the Knesset held an emergency session a month before the elections for the 19th Knesset.
Almost around-the-clock deliberations were held in the Knesset Economics Committee.
In the end, Channel 10’s broadcasting franchise was extended for two years and a loan was authorized to cover its debts to the government. Two years later, the situation has not changed for the most part, with the current dispute revolving about NIS 36 million.
Channel 10 has been receiving almost unanimous support this past week from the media and the politicians who have an ax to grind with Netanyahu. On Monday morning, the Army Radio station, Galatz, hosted Matan Chodorov, head of the channel’s employees’ committee. He was not asked to explain why the public should trust any proclamation of the channel, which time and time again has proven to be – and this is putting it mildly – unreliable. The very supportive interview – by Niv Raskin, who himself works for Channel 10 – is characteristic of the media’s attitude when it comes to its own interests.
When Channel 1 TV’s workers’ committee a few months ago also employed the tactic of stealing air time and the resources of the (publicly funded) IBA for its own purposes, the criticism was also rather minor.
The timing of this latest move of Channel 10’s, with election fever high, has allowed politicians and candidates for office to fall all over themselves to comment, keeping the issue not only alive but confusing it for the uninvolved.
Minister Naftali Bennett (Bayit Yehudi) said, “Channel 10 is not my biggest fan, but we must not allow it to close. We need to diversify it. Not close it. Not fire hundreds of employees.”
Meretz leader MK Zehava Gal-On said, “Like the last of thugs Netanyahu chooses...
to deal a fatal blow to freedom of speech.” Yair Lapid, lately the finance minister, chimed in, claiming that “Netanyahu is closing personal accounts... a democratic state requires a strong and free press.” There were reactions from the Labor Party, former minister Gideon Sa’ar and a slew of others.
Elections can indeed be a tremendous boon, as the station proved two years ago when the Knesset forgave it hundreds of millions of shekels of debts and commitments.
The pontificating politicos are not being pressed to explain why, if a free, pluralistic and strong press is necessary for democracy, they are at one and the same time supporting legislation to quash the free-distribution Israel Hayom daily. Nor are they being reminded that many of them, or their parties, took Arutz 7 off the air for far more minor misdeeds.
This past week has witnessed a major scandal, as yet unproven, of bribes and misappropriations of public funds. The central accusation is that politicians conditioned their support for certain causes upon kickbacks.
Channel 10 is doing, and has done, precisely the same thing: threatening politicians, especially the prime minister, to extort from them funding for its own coffers. Despite the obvious parallel, no advocate of Channel 10 is confronted with questions about the morality of the channel’s practices.
Three weeks ago, two Knesset committees exempted the channel from NIS 130m. which should have been spent on high-quality programming.
This came after the channel promised that it had a new investor and the reduction was to help the channel straighten out its finances and bring in new investors.
Promises are easy to make, but keeping them is another matter. Channel 10 made many promises and broke quite a few of them.
According to the present law, Channel 10 must receive a operating license from January 1 onwards. But obtaining such a license depends on its having met all its financial commitments. If the channel does not pay its present debt of NIS 36 million, there is no way that it can continue operations.
Too many in Israeli society claimed that closing down the channel implies a blow to media plurality in Israel. We beg to differ: It is the right thing to do. For too long the channel has disregarded its written commitments and promises. Letting it continue and operate makes a joke of the law.
There are two other channels who could take over the space left by Channel 10 if permitted to do so. In other words, closing the channel down would only lead to better TV: more pluralism, fresh voices and higher-quality programming. Might this be why the politicians so vociferously defend Channel 10? Yesterday, Yehudah Weinstein, Israel’s attorney general, himself displayed disrespect for the law in ordering a six-month extension of the channel’s operations, which includes freeing it from having repaying its debt. Weinstein “saved the day” for Channel 10, but it is Israeli society which is sadly paying the price.
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch. (