Media Comment: A Swiss bribe

Some principles of media ethics should seem self-evident, and yet, journalists and their papers find it difficult to uphold them in practice.

geneva 521 (photo credit: Ronen Shnidman)
geneva 521
(photo credit: Ronen Shnidman)
Some principles of media ethics should seem self-evident, and yet, journalists and their papers find it difficult to uphold them in practice. The ethics code of Israel’s Press Council states quite clearly in paragraph 15A that: “A newspaper and a journalist shall not place themselves in a position where there is a suspicion of a conflict of interest between their duties as a newspaper and a journalist and any other interest.”
For example, the principle means that a journalist reporting on cars should not accept any financial advantage from a car dealer or manufacturer, such as a fully paid invitation to an international car show where his wares are on display.
The rationale is simple: the public should receive an unbiased review of the various cars.
Where, though, is the limit? A public official invites the press to a press conference and supplies them with coffee and cake – does this create a conflict of interest? Is this considered to be an ethical bribe which taints both the receiver and the giver? The New York Times has a detailed code of ethics readily found on their website. Among others, it states: “When we as journalists entertain news sources [including government officials] or travel to cover them, our company pays the expenses. In some business situations and in some cultures, it may be unavoidable to accept a meal or a drink paid for by a news source [for example, at an official’s residence or in a company’s private dining room].
Whenever practical, however, we should avoid those circumstances and suggest dining where we can pay our share...
Routine refreshments at an event like a news conference are acceptable, but a staff member should not attend recurring breakfast or lunch meetings unless our company pays for the journalist’s meals… Staff members may not accept free or discounted transportation and lodging except where special circumstances give little or no choice.”
The Times is not stating anything surprising. It is just accepting a clear standard, taught in journalism schools and upheld by many media organizations which is that a journalist should not accept any favors from any subject which she or he is covering.
Such support leads to a conflict of interest. In plain language, it is an ethical bribe and like any bribe, it taints both the organization attempting to give it, as well as the one who accepts it.
Arguably, the most important school of journalism in Israel is the army radio station Galatz. It, however, does not seem to understand this basic principle. On November 23, 2011, Galatz’s political reporter Il’il Shachar provided Galatz’s listeners with a report from Geneva on a conference of the “Geneva Initiative” which was taking place that same week in Geneva. Its mission statement states, among others things, that its goal is to “educate and campaign, both locally and internationally, that it is in the best interest of Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate directly in order to reach a realistic, dignified, and sustainable twostate solution,” thus placing it firmly on the left side of the divide between right and left in Israel.
On that same day, an astute and attentive listener, sent a letter to Galatz with a simple query: “I would like to please obtain information as to who funded Ms. Shachar’s trip to Geneva.” After waiting vainly for an answer for six weeks, the listener asked that Israel’s Media Watch (IMW) intervene on his behalf. On February 16, a second request was submitted by the listener to Galatz. In response, he was informed that his letter was being forwarded to Galatz’s complaints commissioner, Oded Levinson.
On May 3, almost three months later, Levinson wrote back that his question is “under study.” On July 30, almost another three months later, IMW demanded an answer from Levinson. On August 15, some eight months after the original complaint, an answer finally emerged, with Levinson writing to IMW that: “The issue is a serious one since it touches the heart of journalistic work and professional ethics. Believe me that the issue is on the desk of Galatz’s commander, Mr. Yaron Dekel, who we all know is a valiant and decent journalist. I spoke with him about the issue a number of times, and significant steps are being taken on this issue, as you understand and know though, not everything can be revealed to the public.”
IMW responded on August 19, noting that the public deserves an immediate answer as to who funded Shachar’s trip to Geneva. After further stonewalling, on September 12, IMW submitted a formal complaint to the Israeli Press Council.
This, and only this, finally led to results.
Shachar, complaining to IMW that they did not consult with her and that there was no need for IMW to file a complaint with the Press Council, provided her personal answer on September 20. Her trip was funded by the Swiss government.
As Shachar must know, the Swiss government, led by former foreign minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, are avid supporters of the Geneva Initiative.
In no way can it be considered as an impartial third party.
Already in 2003, Calmy-Rey actively supported the Geneva Initiative. In 2006, she openly denounced Israeli bombing in Lebanon, terming it “disproportionate,” calling for respect of humanitarian law. Swiss involvement is so deep that even a pro-Palestinian NGO viewed their involvement as prejudicial against the Palestinians.
In fact, Shachar in her report noted that the conference was held under the auspices of Calmy-Rey, the president of Switzerland at the time.
Shachar should be complimented, though, for providing an answer. Galatz, to this day has not sent IMW an official answer, not to mention an explanation.
Accepting funding from the Swiss government, which stands behind the Geneva Initiative, makes it virtually impossible for the political correspondent covering the event, whose trip was paid by the Swiss, to be critical. Her reporting was tainted.
One could surmise that Levinson was reluctant to divulge the funding source, since it is now clear that not only was there a breach of ethics on the part of Galatz but that the Swiss government was part of an unethical procedure.
It should have never invited a journalist on its account to cover the Geneva initiative.
Giving a journalistic bribe is just as bad as accepting it.
IMW did not accept Schachar’s demand that IMW retract its complaint to the Press Council. It is our firm belief that it is high time that Galatz understand that it is a publicly funded body, which owes the tax payer a full explanation.
Galatz should undertake administrative steps to make sure that such a conflict of interest does not repeat itself.
Finally, we would like to commend the social responsibility of the author of the original complaint who persisted in demanding that Galatz be accountable for its actions.The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch