MEDIA COMMENT: The trust gap

Our justice officials are very concerned about conflicts of interest.

Newspapers [Illustrative]  (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Newspapers [Illustrative]
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
This last Friday, the Israel Hayom newspaper published results from their latest public opinion poll. It showed that 53% of those polled had a low opinion of the media, and as for the Justice Ministry Prosecutor’s Office, 44% had a low opinion. Only 20% had high trust in the media and 28% in the prosecutor’s office.
At the Haifa conference of the Israel Bar Association (IBA) last week, Ms. Dina Zilber, the deputy attorney-general (Counseling), complained about the public’s low trust – and what she claims is an orchestrated attempt to denigrate Israel’s judicial system on the backdrop of the investigations into the alleged criminal actions of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In harsh words, she hit back at the “fake news” she hears on the radio about her place of employment as it pollutes the public conversation. She believed there was a concerted campaign to “alter the [system’s] checks and balances… and public servants are being maligned and smeared on a daily basis.” She was, we can presume, referring only to non-elected government employees.
The mistrust of the public in both these institutions is well deserved. Instead of using any of the high profile stories related to the prime minister and his aides – as well as the newly-developing story of State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan’s letter sent to sitting judges, who will probably be dealing soon in the Netanyahu cases – we will unroll a small story, but one that exemplifies why this mistrust runs so deeply.
Our justice officials are very concerned about conflicts of interest. Anyone who has had to fill in the forms requested when being appointed to a governmental council – for example, the Council of Higher Education or the former IBA’s Public Council – must detail any conflicts of interest, such as relations to politicians, affiliations with political parties, etc. The idea behind it sounds good – it would prevent politicos from appointing their cronies to governmental jobs. But the process has become extreme.
One of us (Eli Pollak) was appointed three years ago as a member of the Council of Higher Education. At the same time, he was chairman of the Chemical Physics Department at the Weizmann Institute of Science. He was forced to sign a document stating that he would not deal with any topic in chemical physics as long as he is chairman. That is stupid, one may say. The candidate happens to be a world-renowned expert in the field of chemical physics, but the legal advisers prevent him from using his expertise since he might use the position to further the interests of his department.
LET IT BE CLEAR: Any member of the council cannot participate in issues dealing with his or her home institution, and this is fine. That would be a clear conflict of interest. But to be disallowed from using their expertise just because the person is chairperson of a department in the same field? A bit farfetched, we think.
But what happens when someone is a journalist and happens to be the daughter or son of a politician? Should those journalists be allowed to serve in a public media organization in the capacity of political correspondents who directly cover, among other subjects, the actions of their parent’s or spouse’s political party?
This is not a hypothetical question – and we are not referring to Geula Even-Sa’ar, wife of MK Gideon Sa’ar (Likud), who resigned as KAN’s nighttime news anchor. Our focus is on Michael Hauser-Tov, the son of Blue and White Party MK Zvi Hauser. He also happens to be the political correspondent of the army radio station Galatz.
On May 15, Ziv Maor, Israel’s Media Watch chairman, wrote a letter to Shimon Elkabez, the station’s commander, noting that its own ethics code states that, “An employee will not be in a position of conflict of interest between the commitment to the public as an employee of the station and any other interest… any employee, she or he or any of their family members, who might have a personal, business, public or political interest, directly or indirectly in any topic, will not deal with that topic and will bring this to the attention of the chief editor.”
Maor wanted to know how the station is dealing with Hauser-Tov. It took over a month, but on June 20 the answer came: Hauser-Tov did not cover the election campaign, but after it ended he was reinstated to his job as political correspondent.
The April elections were followed by the September elections – and even today, elections are a central news topic. All political parties are seeking ways to further their interests and present themselves well to the public. This includes the Blue and White Party. Hauser-Tov continues as the political correspondent and, almost daily, reports on his father’s party. Maor did not relent. A second letter was sent on October 15, but to no avail. No one is willing to take responsibility, certainly not the legal adviser of the Israel Broadcasting Corporation, which by law is responsible for overseeing Galatz.
So, what have we? Conflict of interest is important, but when it comes to a blatant case of politico father and son in the media, there is silence from Ms. Zilber. There is no conflict of interest when it comes to the media – or is there?
Are we too unnecessarily suspicious of the media and what we perceive as its propensity to be biased? Are we too critical?
Let’s cast a glance at what Tim Shipman, the political editor of Britain’s The Sunday Times, has written. Shipman’s 2016 book, All Out War, which reviews the Brexit referendum, touches of course on the relationship with the press. As he notes, the Tory Party’s campaign was based on a simple playbook: Winning elections requires “an environment where the print media was sympathetic, but this time their natural allies were hostile.” Not only hostile, but strongly unsympathetic to giving the Tories a fair hearing. Shipman adds: “Their arguments [were] distorted, the facts so hideously disfigured in their opponent’s favor that they were unrecognizable, or blatant falsehoods by the opposition [were] taken seriously. These were not only rules of engagement to which they were unaccustomed – they were rules under which they could not compete.”
As for the BBC, Shipton quotes one of David Cameron’s closest aides, relating to the 2015 election saying, “the BBC [expletive] up… it was totally [expletive] journalism. They… misunderst[ood] what impartiality actually means… they have had a demonstrable impact in a negative way.”
That template is one with which every Israeli, from whichever political camp, is quite familiar. Media bias occurs in Britain, in the United States and in Israel. The lack of trust in the media is well deserved. In the case of Hauser-Tov, it would have been easy to turn him into the foreign affairs correspondent and prevent any conflict of interest. The Justice Ministry should have stepped in, or at least the local legal adviser. The lack of willingness to do the obvious is just another bit of fuel for the lack of trust in these institutions.

The authors are members of Israel’s Media Watch (