Media Comment: Putting the public back into public broadcasting

The broadcasting of news by a government body, which should be fair and balanced by law, is the exact opposite.

IBA HEADQUARTERS is located on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
IBA HEADQUARTERS is located on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
We think it would be quite a fair assumption that many of us are either finding it very difficult to grasp the complexities of the issues surrounding the new public broadcasting network, the old one and a new news unit, or have perhaps given up on the matter altogether. The IBA, the Ta’agid (the Kan Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation), etc., are all turning out to be an unfathomable subject.
According to the March Peace Index Poll, carried out by professors Ephraim Yaar and Tamar Hermann, a majority (53%) of the Jewish interviewees in the sample responded negatively to the question, “Do you understand what the dispute between those supporting the establishment of the public broadcasting corporation and those opposing its establishment is about?” Among the Arab sample, 60% basically do not.
As for the motives of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 28.5% of the Jewish public think the prime minister is impelled by “the desire to improve the balance and quality of the Israeli media,” while 61% hold the view that what mainly motivates him is “the desire to strengthen his political control over the Israeli media.”
For us, however, the key finding is that a clear majority of the public (60% of the Jewish public, 69% of the Arab public) thinks that the government is not entitled to intervene in the contents and appointments of the public broadcasting networks even though it finances these networks.
The Jewish vote though is fragmented.
When analyzed further one finds that 47% of those identified with Israel’s Right think it permissible for the government to intervene. Netanyahu knows his constituency.
The root problem is that Israel’s various public broadcasting services, whether Radio Kol Yisrael, Channel 1 television or, for that matter, the IDF’s Galatz radio are far from being “public” except in the sense that the public pays for them. The public has little say regarding the programming content or staff appointments, the supervision of professional journalistic standards or the punishment of ethics violations. The broadcasters have never asked the public what it thinks of its programming, nor do they care. Public broadcasters, basically, take the money and run.
There are over 50 countries with public broadcasting outlets whose transmissions are government-sourced. Back in 2013, Trevor Burrus of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank linked to the conservative Koch brothers, promoted the idea that public broadcasting must be defunded because there is a “tilt” in its output, and for Burrus, it “is irrelevant which way public broadcasting tilts. What matters is that it tilts at all.”
For him, that means that most ideas are rarely, if ever, given airtime on public broadcasting. Furthermore, even if one accepts the tenet that public broadcasting strives for balance, Burrus asks why the public should be forced to fund programming with which they disagree?
In Israel, Israel’s Media Watch’s research over two decades has amply demonstrated the consistent left-of-center, post-modern bias and partiality of all of our public broadcasters. From the top down, for decades, a rather small minority of people has shaped perception of news and events, placed it in a certain framework while promoting their pet issues and personae.
There is also a financial aspect. Private media corporations, unlike government- supported ones, by necessity relate to market considerations. For example, last week in Australia, Fairfax Media proposed $30 million job cuts together with a stated “mission statement” supporting market-based solutions. The journalists would not accept this. The stop-work resolution they issued read, “We reject any ideological direction. We report the facts fairly and accurately without fear or favor. We call out the company’s pernicious ideological interference and the fact that coercion was buried in their mission statement.” In the public media, especially in Israel, the journalists have never shown financial responsibility.
The universal, fundamental question underlying public broadcasting is whether government funding should be used to provide goods that cannot or will not be provided by the market. In Israel there is a case to be made that public programming is needed to provide services for minorities, such as new immigrants, the Russian and Ethiopian and English-speaking population and more. There is also justification for the Israeli government to employ modern media technology to explain Israel’s position to the world.
But public programming need not be popular. Quite the contrary, the more popular it is, the less it needs to be supported by the taxpayer.
The upshot of all of this is that Netanyahu’s separating the news division from the rest is ridiculous. The news division should be abolished – the void will be immediately filled by private corporations.
Indeed, the advertising on Kol Yisrael has become so prominent that it is obvious that it does not need public funding at all. The broadcasting of news by a government body, which should be fair and balanced by law, is the exact opposite.
The public funding and the advantages that come with it, such as dominating a large segment of the airwaves, have only helped in supporting a small elitist group that sets the cultural and political standards for the populace at large while denying the democratically elected representatives of the people the right to intervene/interfere in the programming.
Moreover, the public is forced to pay for the bias as well as the exorbitant salaries of those who have usurped the public airwaves to dictate the moral, cultural and social standards of the public square.
This brings us to the second fundamental question: who should be in control of public broadcasting? Nowhere in the world does there exist a model such as the one used for the new corporation, whereby the communications minister can only select the head of the appointments committee, who must be, at least, a retired district court judge. The journalists demanded this and our government yielded to the dictates of the media elite.
The BBC, the model public broadcaster, has a government-appointed board. In Germany, the public broadcasting boards are appointed by the various federal governments.
In France, half of the governing body is appointed by the government. But Netanyahu and his former communications minister Gilad Erdan caved in to the pressure of the elite and created a system which almost entirely frees the public broadcaster from public responsibility.
Yet, even if the government has a say in the public broadcaster’s management, it is far from guaranteeing that the broadcaster truly relates to the public interest.
David Goodhart’s book The Road to Somewhere devastates the BBC hierarchy, the “Anywheres” out of sympathy with Britain’s majority of “Somewheres” and he asks, and this holds true for Israel, can democracy truly be healthy if the public broadcasting elite are “powerful people [who] hold views that are evidently at odds with the core political intuitions of the majority of the public”? The least Israel should do is to adopt a democratic structure for the public broadcasters. Better yet, Reshet Bet radio and Channel 1 TV Hebrew news should be abolished. They are a waste of public funding.
And a Happy Passover to all our readers!
The authors are members of Israel’s Media Watch,