Media Comment: Conflicts of interest

Why then does Israel allow the Toto and Mifal Hapayis to operate?

Rio Olympics (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rio Olympics
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Two inter-related topics have been on our media agenda during the past two weeks. One is the attempt by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu) to curtail the activities of Israel’s two public gambling institutions, Mifal Hapayis, owned by Israel’s municipalities, and the Toto, which runs sports betting. The second is the media coverage of the Olympics. Both create a serious conflict of interest for the media and both have an international flavor.
The Jewish attitude toward gambling is negative.
The Talmud notes that the testimony of someone who gambles with dice is not acceptable in court. Gambling has destroyed families and people. It is addictive. Large gambling losses have even led to murder. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has more than once tried to introduce legal casino gambling to Israel, claiming that it would bring with it huge profits for the tourism industry and especially Eilat, but was overruled even by his own party members.
Why then does Israel allow the Toto and Mifal Hapayis to operate? Some claim that gambling is simply an unsurmountable human weakness, and that if the country were to forbid gambling completely it would continue illegally and be dominated by criminal elements. Better to have government gambling operations which are limited in scope and regulated.
Both Mifal Hapayis and the Toto are public corporations. Mifal Hapayis pours its profits into the coffers of the municipal governments which use it to build classes, public centers and fund a variety of public interest activities. The Toto, run by the Council for Organization of Sports Gambling, with representatives of the Israel Olympic Committee (IOC) on its board, uses its profits to enhance sports activities in Israel, supporting sports clubs, sports education and Israel’s Olympic efforts. Both organizations are considered to be relatively clean by the media. Bribing of athletes is relatively rare and the known number of cases is small.
Yet, when one thinks of it, the media’s relationship to these organizations puts it in a serious conflict of interest. The Payis spends almost NIS 100 million per year on advertisements, making it one of the biggest supporters of the Israeli media. The Toto (whose yearly income of NIS 2.6 billion, compared to that of the Payis at NIS 6.5b.) spends NIS 30m. directly on advertising and much more indirectly through its support of the Israel Premier League’s monopoly on broadcasting its games.
Given these huge sums, it is clear that media outlets which carry advertising of the two organizations would be very hesitant to criticize them. Our three central TV channels were very supportive of the “cottage cheese” social upheaval of 2011. They consistently clamor that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Yet, the Payis and the Toto do the same. Their combined NIS 10b. annual income is equivalent to an annual tax of NIS 5000 per Israeli household, if it were equally distributed. It is not. The rich hardly pay it at all; the poor pay most of it. Imagine the brouhaha the media would raise if Netanyahu were to suggest such a skewed taxation.
But the Payis and the Toto are not taken to task – at least not until Finance Minister Kahlon put his foot down. All he did was limit the operations of the Payis and stop its setting up of slot machines all over the country.
The reaction of the municipalities was a strike threat, and the media played along beautifully, giving the threatening mayors ample opportunity to “explain” why their threats are justified. This paid off for them: the Finance Ministry agreed to cover most of the “losses” incurred because of the curtailing of the Payis.
The media silence is deafening. When a doctor manages to top the income list of government officials, reaching NIS 1m. per year, the media goes berserk in pointing out the “injustice.” Yet the salary of the executive director of the Payis is almost the same. At least the salary of the physician comes from taxpayers’ money, which is mostly covered by the rich. The salary of the CEO of the Payis comes from the poor. But the media is mostly silent.
The Olympic Games are not very different.
Their coverage in Israel borders on the ridiculous. This Monday, Israel Hayom, Israel’s leading newspaper, ran on its front page the headline “The Night of Hanna,” referring to Hanna Knyazeva-Minenko, who was hopefully going to win an Olympic medal in the women’s triple jump. Let’s make this clear: the paper went to press before the results were known; Knyazeva-Minenko had not even won a medal yet made it onto page one.
It is interesting to compare Israel with its eight-million population to other countries, such as Switzerland, also with 8 million, or Denmark with 6 million. Swiss athletes have thus far collected five medals, two of them gold and two bronze. Danish athletes won three bronze, three silver and one gold. Israel’s performance by comparison is very weak.
Why? Not many countries send their sports ministers to spend a few weeks in Rio to “oversee” the Olympics. Our media, which rushes to criticize the prime minister for expenses incurred in his travels abroad, have in this case, even though they generally abhor Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, kept mum about the unnecessary expense.
Israeli athletes garnered two bronze medals.
They were publicly congratulated by President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Haven’t our politicians overdone this? Why aren’t they brought to task for mixing sports with politics? The IOC clearly failed, Israel’s results are miserable – why doesn’t the media demand its resignation and the infusion of new blood into it? Could it be because the media is afraid of the IOC members who control the advertising budget of the Toto? The TV channels make extra income from their coverage of the Olympic Games, as do other stations all over the world. The world coverage of the games is fueled by advertising income. Are they really so popular, or are they made popular by an industry which has much to gain from the “excitement”? The public has limited knowledge of the rules governing judo, or sailing. If it weren’t for the Olympic aura, these activities would garner very little attention. Consider the Paralympics, where Israel is a world leader.
Games with disabled people, who might have missing limbs and other disfigurements, do not attract huge audiences. In Israel, where too many people have been hurt by war and acts of terrorism, the Paralympics should be much more important than the Olympics.
Yet they are not. The income from advertisement is not sufficient.
These maladies are not limited to Israel.
Money is all too important when it comes to media coverage of any issue. This in itself may be legitimate, but what is wrong is the media’s simultaneous self-aggrandizement as “the conscience of the people.”
The authors are members of Israel’s Media Watch (