MEDIA COMMENT:Ethics at Kan?

Why does a broadcaster need a code of ethics at all?

"Kan," the new public broadcaster's logo. (photo credit: FACEBOOK)
"Kan," the new public broadcaster's logo.
(photo credit: FACEBOOK)
The legislation which created the Israel Broadcasting Corporation, which insists on calling itself Kan (which means “here” in English) authorized its board to create a new code of ethics for the public broadcaster. And indeed, quietly, without any public discourse, this is what the IBC did.
But, one might ask, why does a broadcaster need a code of ethics at all? The same question was hurled at Israel’s Council for Higher Education, of which one of us (EP) is a member. The claim in that case was that a code of ethics should not be imposed by the regulator as it encroaches upon the academic freedom of the colleges and universities.
But more seriously, the argument also noted that any university has a disciplinary code.
If it is violated, the university can punish the offender. If a law is violated, such as by sexual harassment, the police would become involved and they would take the necessary steps.
Likewise for the public broadcaster, if an employee does not carry out their job correctly, discipline may result. Although too many of the Kan employees are not considered to be government officials, an arrangement that releases them from the governmental disciplinary code, they still have to abide by the norms of the broadcaster, which are defined by law. Why then do they need a code of ethics? Consider the words uttered just last week in London by The Guardian’s editor Katharine Viner. In a speech on November 16 before staff, members and supporters, she declared, “journalists must work to earn the trust of those they aim to serve. And we must make ourselves more representative of the societies we aim to represent. Members of the media are increasingly drawn from the same, privileged sector of society. This problem has actually worsened in recent decades.”
All too often, however, such words are simply trotted out as a palliative, to calm media consumers who witness constant media bias and are upset at the product they are being served up. The media most rarely apologizes for its infractions and even more rarely punishes miscreants in any way. Perhaps then a code of ethics is useful if it can be enforced and thus increase public trust? Here in Israel, Kan recently ratified its new Code of Professional Ethics, something which in reality is a code of non-ethics.
Unfortunately, over the years the journalists’ code of ethics in Israel has become a joke. No one abides by it, no one takes it seriously and no one is ever punished for violating it.
This is the argument voiced by Dr.
Tehilla Shwartz-Altshuler, director of the media reform program at the Israel Institute for Democracy, who was tasked to head the commission responsible for creating the new code of ethics.
Accordingly, as she explained last Friday in an article in Makor Rishon, the new code does not impose objectivity on Kan employees.
Rather, the “new objectivity” is “transparency.”
So any journalist at Kan can use her microphone or his camera to not only express their personal opinion but to try and convince the public they are right. As long as it is transparent that the opinion is a personal one, this would not only be allowed but encouraged.
Did Altshuler, who represents the “Democracy Institute,” ever consider that the journalist is usurping the public domain, or in more stark terms, stealing the public microphone, and being paid out of public funds to do so? Why should the journalists be allowed to use the resources of a public organization to spread their own opinions? In its forward, the new code states that one of the code’s fundamental demands is to prevent conflict of interest or the receipt of personal benefits. Didn’t the “wise people” see how ludicrous it is to allow the expression of private opinion and at the same time demand no conflict of interest? Arieh Golan, the veteran usurper of the public airways, is an excellent example. Consistently, he opens his news program with his personal opinion.
He then interviews someone on the same issue. Can that interview be fair? Altshuler is aware that public trust in the media in Israel is very low. She herself acknowledges it has dropped from 50% 10 years ago to 25% today. She also notes that one of the reasons for the increased public mistrust has to do with an increase in media review (something for which Israel’s Media Watch and the writers of this column take credit for). However, she did not even consider asking media review organizations to participate in formulation of the new code of ethics. Rather, she claims that “deep transparency” will do the job.
So, if a journalist does express a private opinion, it should be made clear it is private.
Kan’s code of ethics is the antithesis of transparency. Why didn’t they present their new code of ethics to the public for public discussion before ratifying it? What happened to transparency? This new code destroys any possibility of ensuring any media fairness.
The authors of this article were involved in making sure that people such as Gabi Gazit and Nathan Zehavi (both accused lately of sexual harassment) would not work for the public broadcaster. This was possible as long as it was clear that they had violated the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s code of ethics. Additionally, an IMW petition to the High Court was instrumental in removing Amnon Abramovitch from the IBA. With the new code of ethics this would no longer be possible.
The new code is based on false premises.
The public mistrust of the media is not due to increased public criticism, but due to the fact that that criticism is both justified and ignored by the media. Retractions at the public broadcaster are very rare. Impartiality and pluralism do not exist. As we have stressed in this column too often, information coming from the Right is ignored and questions are invariably posed from a post-Zionist point of view. The code does not even demand that journalists speak correct Hebrew, and too many don’t.
Why were the deliberations over the code secret? Why was the Kohelet organization excluded? Are only those with a left-liberal agendas permitted to engage in discussions of ethics? Why weren’t the general public and media NGOs invited to submit position papers? Transparency? Decency? Public trust? No, Dr. Altshuler. As long as people like you are not even aware of the true problems and do not try to cope with them, the public broadcaster will not garner public trust. The purpose of any code of ethics for journalists is to serve and protect the public, not journalists. There is no reason why an organization such as Kan should receive from the state coffers a sum which is even greater than that given to the Israel Science Foundation, which contributes much more to Israeli society.
We do not need a new ethics code. The previous one was quite adequate. Communications Minister Ayoub Kara should intervene, and closing down Kan should also be on the agenda.
The authors are members of Israel’s Media Watch (