Media Comment: The legacy of Communications Minister Erdan

Upon becoming minister, Erdan identified a number of actions which could affect large parts of the population.

IBA logo (photo credit: COURTESY OF IBA)
IBA logo
(photo credit: COURTESY OF IBA)
Likud MK Gilad Erdan has served as communications minister for the past year and a half. His predecessor, former Likud MK Moshe Kahlon, had a huge impact on the Israeli public during his four-year tenure.
Kahlon’s insistence that cell phone usage was outrageously expensive and needed to be reduced, his forceful leadership and ability to withstand huge political and economical pressure made its mark: as we all know, our cell phone bills are no longer outrageous.
Erdan’s entry into the ministry presented him with a challenge and an opportunity.
The challenge was to fill the void left by Kahlon; it is not every day a minister can even consider a strategy which would reduce the taxpayers’ burden by billions of shekels.
The opportunity was that Kahlon had succeeded in greatly increasing the ministry’s influence on our daily lives.
As minister, Kahlon mostly addressed communications per se, and even with so restricted a focus had only partial success.
For example, we still pay very high phone rates when we go abroad. Erdan realized this and initiated a number of steps to reduce the burden. Simply by announcing this past August that his ministry would consider regulatory measures which would force the cell phone operators to significantly reduce the expense has created positive change. Led by Golan Telecom, with Cellcom following shortly thereafter, prices have already been significantly reduced. But the final impact of this on the average taxpayers’ monthly bill is rather limited.
What Kahlon did not do, however, was address the second aspect of his ministry’s responsibilities: regulating the media industry.
Upon becoming minister, Erdan identified a number of actions which could affect large parts of the population in this regard.
It is no secret that in Israel, media regulation does not work. The word “quality” is foreign to our commercial TV. The main competition between TV channels 10 and 2 involves reducing expenses while still keeping sufficient public attention to sell commercials.
The commercial TV news channels are characterized by sensationalism, superficial coverage and cultural and political bias.
Israel needs more media purveyors and a different regulatory structure.
A second issue is public broadcasting. Israel is wasting over a billion shekels a year on publicly funded media organizations, most of it going to the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
The IBA’s TV stagnated and quality local programming disappeared over the years.
Corruption was a way of life at the IBA and all previous attempts to change the situation failed. (We do note that Kahlon’s responsibilities did not include the IBA, but it was reinstated at the beginning of Erdan’s tenure.) The Educational TV network, operating within the Education Ministry and whose annual budget was around NIS 100 million, is not doing much better than the IBA.
To add to all this, one of the ridiculous aspects of Israel’s governmental system is that the law and the Justice Ministry prohibit the communications minister or his or her officials from “interfering” in the daily operations of the media purveyors, including the publicly funded ones. This is done in the name of separation between politics and the media, supposedly safeguarding the media from political pressure and intervention. This makes it very difficult for any minister to create real change.
The minister’s power is limited to appointing members of the regulatory boards and even here, the minister is subject to the strict and politically motivated veto of the Justice Ministry, who can with impunity nullify any of the minister’s appointments. Thus, although the media industry needed deep change, it was not at all clear whether any communications minister could actually create it.
Erdan did not approach these issues as a babe in the woods. He had intimate knowledge of the operational structure of the IBA, having served on its board from 1998-2000.
He was also chair of the Knesset Economics Committee from 2006-2009 and became intimate with all aspects of media regulation in Israel. Among other tasks, he took an important part in the legislative process which led to the 2012 version of the public broadcasting law.
It is thus not surprising that Erdan’s most important impact is the closing down of the old IBA and creation of the Public Broadcasting Corporation (PBC). Realizing that revamping the publicly funded media was impossible by conventional means, Erdan decided that the only possible route to create change was to use his influence as a minister via the legislative process. The bottom line is that the new law has adopted our policy, suggested a dozen years ago in these pages. The unfair TV tax has been abolished and replaced by the car tax, which is paid for by all, with the rich (who own more cars) paying more than the poor who have one or none.
Erdan’s legislation abolished educational TV, unifying it within the PBC. The new law obliges the PBC to outsource almost all of its TV programming, barring the news. It reduces the manpower of the PBC by over half. The expected annual budget of the PBC will be 30 percent to 40% percent less than what is it today. Erdan has just finished the process of appointing a new council for the Second TV and Radio Authority (SATR). He wisely removed the previous chairman, Dr.
Ilan Avisar, the head of the TV programming committee, Yaakov Shacham, and the head of the radio committee, Yossi Elituv. All three failed miserably, as outlined elsewhere in our columns. Unprecedentedly, two thirds of the new council are women.
At the same time, Erdan continued the process initiated by his predecessor Kahlon of unifying the SATR with the Satellite and Cable TV regulatory board. The purpose is to streamline the regulatory body and bring it up to date with the enormous technological developments of recent years, which no longer really differentiate between one broadcasting method and the other. However, this legislative process, which one would think is much easier to implement than the dismantling of the IBA, has not yet been finished.
In fact, Erdan is leaving the Communications Ministry too early. Although he did abolish the TV tax, it is not at all clear that the net result is a savings for the taxpayer.
The immense financial cost of firing 1,000 employees is not clear at all. The taxpayer will bear the burden and one can assume that the Histadrut will make sure the bill is hefty. Will the new PBC really be better, or just more of the same? Erdan’s law assures that the new PBC will be dominated by Israel’s media elites; not a good prescription for real change.
Nothing is forcing Erdan to leave the ministry.
As a public servant, motivated by a desire to improve the life of Israel’s citizens, he should have remained in office to assure that the very positive vehicles of change that he initiated would come to full fruition. Is his departure a sign that he really knows that he would not have been able to succeed?
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (