March 30, 2017

MEDIA COMMENT: Netanyahu, government and the media

Posted in Uncategorized at 2:17 pm by yisraelmedad

Media Comment: Netanyahu, government and the media
As we wrote two weeks ago, the saga of public broadcasting in Israel is truly never-ending. As of the writing of this article, the future is not clear. Perhaps Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon will reach a compromise or an agreement regarding the future format of a public broadcasting service. Perhaps not, and we will have new elections. What is unbelievable is the amount of time wasted on our airwaves and the number of trees destroyed on this issue, and most of it not addressing one of the central issues at hand, namely governance and how our present government operates.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s handling of the endless saga is truly very worrisome.

The fundamental question is not whether his policy is right or wrong, whether he is interested in controlling the media or is just using the public broadcasting issue as an excuse for going to new elections. What should be of concern, and appears not to be, is the prime minister’s decision-making process.

We will give Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt and assume that he truly realized that the new Israel Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) legislation, which had been introduced and led by former communications minister Gilad Erdan, was flawed from the outset. The legislation wrested control of the public broadcaster from the government, which at least previously had public oversight, and gave it to an unelected elite, themselves not free of a desire for political, cultural and ideological control.

Last July, the prime minister reached an agreement with Histadrut chairman Avi Nissenkorn to defer the implementation of the IBC until the beginning of 2018. This meant that already then, Netanyahu realized his error. Minister Kahlon at that time disagreed with Netanyahu and wanted to see the IBC go into action and the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) closed down.

Kahlon obviously agreed with at least one senior official involved in the new IBC, who was quoted as saying that in putting off the start of the new IBC until 2018, the prime minister was “trying to concoct some kind of formula that will include the old IBA and the new corporation and will preserve all the dysfunctional management culture and political control that has prevailed at the IBA.”

Kahlon and Netanyahu then reached a compromise by which the IBC would start operations on April 30, 2017, that is, a month from now. But if Netanyahu realized his error back in July, what did he gain from deferment? One might argue that he obtained the time needed to convince Minister Kahlon that his decision is the right one. The prime minister gained nine months in which to resolve any remaining differences.

But nothing was done until two weeks ago, until the last minute. Netanyahu did not submit new legislation or enter into serious negotiations with anyone. Only at the last minute did he “wake up.”

The impression is that the deferment was obtained to: a) move a thorny issue away from the decision making process for a while; b) use the old Jewish thinking that time would resolve the issues and that by some miraculous process, something would happen to remove the problem. We are not under the impression that a serious decision-making process was implemented.

Netanyahu’s allies, especially in the form of coalition chairman MK David Bitan (Likud), claim that the coalition agreement signed by Kahlon imposes upon him the obligation to accept the decisions made by the Likud regarding the media. Therefore, either Kahlon accepts Netanyahu’s directive or there will be new elections.

But we would ask MK Bitan why wait until after the Knesset goes for its spring break? Why weren’t these issues resolved one way or the other without working under last-minute pressure? A fundamental difference between the IBC issue and the government’s decision making process concerning the tunnel threat from Gaza is that in contrast to defense issues, here the ploys are on the table, open for anyone who wants to see them. Netanyahu’s decision making process seems to be very flawed. Looking ahead and planning for the future does not seem to be the signature of his government.

The case can be made that this modus operandi of the government is evident in many other issues. These would include the Amona evacuation crisis which was left for the last minute, the lack of a coherent strategy with regard to the new US administration, apart from the order to the ministers not to mention the issue, the last-minute retraction of the compromise concerning the usage of the Western Wall area by Conservative and Reform Jewry and many other items.

Our media complains that the prime minister is attempting to control it, stifling free speech and freedom of opinion.

People such as the IBA’s Aryeh Golan and Prof. Moshe Negbi claim that Netanyahu’s actions are a threat to Israel’s democracy.

They, together with the Israel Democracy Institute’s vice-chair Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer, compare Netanyahu’s actions to the dictatorial practices in countries such as Turkey or Russia.

Right-wing journalist and editor of Makor Rishon Hagai Segal attempted last weekend to analyze the motives of the prime minister.

But he only succeeded in concluding what his true motives are not. They are not that the IBC is left-wing dominated and the IBA is a bastion of right-wing conservative thinking. We all know that for years, the IBA has been and continues to be dominated by so-called liberals who impose their convictions on the public and do it with public funding. Netanyahu’s actions have nothing to do with ideology, but then what? Segal admits he does not know.

Even Segal, though, missed the point. It is not what the motives are, but how Netanyahu goes about acting on them: in the most shlemiel fashion imaginable.

There is a Chinese motto which says that the best emperor is he who does nothing.

But we are not Chinese. We are a small country, that cannot afford to lose a single war. We cannot afford to wait until the estate owner, the poritz in Yiddish, dies.

There is a well-known story of two friends, an American and an Israeli. The Israeli asks his friend, “do you know what differentiates us? You are 90% stupid, we are 90% smart. But do you know what we have in common? It is the remaining 10% that governs.”

Bad governance and the IBC/IBA farce is a luxury Israel cannot afford.




March 15, 2017

MEDIA COMMENT: The end of the never-ending IBA saga?

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:39 pm by yisraelmedad

Media comment: The end of the never-ending IBA saga?
Media bias is not some imaginary wand that politicians wave about and which the media claims is, in a sense, “fake news.”
The news item reads: “The Israel Broadcasting Authority’s television and radio stations launched a strike Monday against a government bill that would dismantle the entity and lay off 2,000 workers.” The date of that story is June 2, 2014.

This week’s up-to-date story is that employees of Channel 1 began a partial strike on Sunday to protest the impending closure of the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA). The impending closure is the result of the passage in the early morning hours of January 3 by the Knesset of an amendment to delay the opening of the new Israeli Broadcasting Corporation (IBC, branded as KAN) and its transmissions to the end of April 2017.

And the news this past Sunday evening was that, in a manner familiar from previous years, the television broadcast was interrupted with a message appearing on the screen informing the viewers that “the IBA will be closed by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. A thousand families will be added to the cycle of unemployment – today it is us. Tomorrow it will be you.”

On Monday evening, the studio was invaded during a live broadcast, halting Michal Rabinowitz’s presentation, by four employees who harangued viewers, criticizing politicians and a law firm working with the Authority. Who permitted them to act in such an outrageous fashion? To take advantage of their professional ability to be involved in producing television programs as well as being paid from the public purse? Imagine a disappointed politician who is never invited to appear on screen acting similarly.

Reforming, restricting, altering and redesigning public broadcasters is not an unknown phenomenon. We noted last year that the BBC was called out as having a culture that is considered “bureaucratic, arrogant and introspective” and that a parliamentary committee had called for the abolition of its governing body, the BBC Trust, as it had “lost confidence and credibility.”

Here in Israel, the dispute between the IBA and government is more than three decades old.

Public broadcasting was one of the central items on the agenda of Israel’s Media Watch from its beginning in 1995.

There was a need for a deep restructuring of the IBA due to its manifest failings.

These included financial irresponsibility, over-employment, extreme featherbedding, outlandish pay scales, byzantine internal politics, employee rivalry and confrontations, multiplicity of workers’ committees and a failing executive administration.

Refusal to use modern equipment that would save time and person-hours despite already being purchased (it was gathering dust in storerooms) was one of the more striking aspects of the structural disarray.

Not least on the list was the practice of IBA employees using their power to support the personal viewpoints and political ideologies of the Authority’s directors and editors.

The bias, which emerged too many times, from studies conducted by IMW and corroborated by others, slowly but surely led to the IBA’s downfall. The public no longer supported a publicly financed body which usurped the funding for its own purposes instead of the public good. It did not understand why it should be forced to pay a TV tax which served no real public need and which was the same for the poor and the rich.

Media bias is not some imaginary wand that politicians wave about and which the media claims is, in a sense, “fake news.”

In mid-February, CBS Face the Nation host John Dickerson, about as much of a media insider as it is possible to be, told a radio interviewer that the media, not President Donald Trump, is responsible for the public’s negative reactions to it. He claimed that “the press did all that good work ruining its reputation on its own and we can have a long conversation about what created that.”

There is no question in our minds that the same comment may be applied to the IBA. Its actions and inactions, committed by senior as well as lower-level staff, are the source of the situation which ultimately led to the formation of the new Israel Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) mandated to replace it. We stress this point, since too often the media claims that the downfall of the IBA was the result of political intervention.

This is not so. Its downfall came from within, from the arrogance of its personnel, from its lack of compliance with ethics and legal obligations and the fact that, if anything, the politicians did not have the courage to call a spade a spade.

In fact, the same holds true for the new IBC. The legislation passed by former communications minister Gilad Erdan handed the control of the IBC, on a silver platter, to the old elites, again ignoring public needs.

If the IBC is allowed to continue without fundamental change, we predict that it too, will not last long. The public outcry will eventually lead to the closure of public broadcasting in Israel.

Last week a new governmental proposal was leaked to the public. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemingly caved in to the pressure of Finance Minister Kahlon and accepted the fact that the old IBA would be closed down and the new IBC would start broadcasting on May 1. However, some significant provisos came with this decision, notably the formation of a centralized Israeli Communications Commission to oversee the media industry, private as well as public. Its members, all of them, would be appointed by the government.

This was criticized almost unanimously by the Israeli media as heralding a new era in which the freedom of the press would be severely curtailed. It should be contrasted with the IBC legislation which usurped the power of appointment of the IBC board from the politicians and gave it to an elitist five-member commission headed by a retired judge.

But shouldn’t the media, like any other business, come under the oversight of the government? Would we want our restaurants to be free of “government intervention” which assures that the food meets certain health standards? We believe that it is the government’s job to make sure the Israeli media upholds the law, which states for example that the media should provide fair coverage of all opinions in the Israeli public. This is only possible if the regulator represents the public, rather than the media itself. The only way for this to happen in a democracy is for the power of oversight to remain in the hands of the representatives of the public, which, for good or bad, are the elected politicians, not any elites.

We do not doubt that the present government, like any government for that matter, whether in Israel or abroad, desires a supportive media. But let us not have such a low opinion of our politicians. Some of them actually do recognize the danger inherent in a media which is too powerful.

The leaked legislation is an example of what should be. Sadly though, we are afraid it will be watered down in the legislative process to the point that it, too, will be useless.



March 1, 2017

MEDIA COMMENT: Desperately needed: Self control

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:01 pm by yisraelmedad

Desperately needed: Self control
Who really controls Israel’s media? Is it the government, the politicians, the “tycoons” – or, just perhaps, could it be those elements in the media that cry wolf loudest.
Israel’s media has repeatedly accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of wanting to control it. For example, his backtracking on the formation of the Israel Broadcasting Corporation (IBC), which had been supposed to replace the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA), was interpreted by his detractors as another attempt by Netanyahu to impose his will on the media. Since the IBC seemed to be filling up with anti-Netanyahu forces, the story was that Netanyahu had decided he’d be better off with the “old” IBA, which would be forever thankful to him for preventing its dissolution. This perverted interpretation is but one of many “fake news” items to which the Israeli public has been subjected.

Who really controls Israel’s media? Is it the government, the politicians, the “tycoons” – or, just perhaps, could it be those elements in the media that cry wolf loudest while doing all they can to assure the continuity of their influence and at the same time expand their own control.

Politicians can, at least in principle, exercise their influence mostly on the public media. This is why for years they would not close down the wasteful Educational TV network, or impose fiscal restraint on the IBA. Similarly, we suspect that Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s threat to shift control of the Galatz radio station to the Defense Ministry was just another political ploy aimed at assuring influence over the station.

In a similar vein, Israel has another public media station, the Knesset Channel, which costs the taxpayer “only” NIS 25 million a year.

The American system is simple. Congress televises its public proceedings and make them available to anyone who wants to use them, whether live or via the Internet.

C-span uses whichever proceedings it finds interesting and broadcasts it through the cable and satellite networks. The cost to the taxpayer is nothing. The consumer can, via the Internet, watch any congressional proceeding she or he desires. The American system is not predicated on many hours of studio broadcasting with panels, interviews and debates between politicians or public figures such as pundits, academics and social activists.

The Israeli system is very different. The Knesset provides a budget of NIS 25m. annually and contracts a company for a period of 10 years to take over Knesset broadcasting.

Although nowadays almost all Knesset proceedings are recorded by Knesset staff, the public can only access them through the filter of the Knesset Channel. In principle, the concessionaire has to be impartial, whereas in practice any broadcaster will always use some filter to provide what is perceived as interesting to the public.

This filter is very meaningful. Consider a typical Knesset committee debate. Does the Knesset Channel pick up all speakers? By no means – only those considered acceptable by the concessionaire. Although many NGOs, companies, groups and private individuals exercise their democratic right and spend their precious time appearing in front of Knesset committees to testify and provide information, only a very small minority will ever be seen by the public since the Knesset Channel does not broadcast all the proceedings. Instead, it uses precious air time for useless, boring and repetitive debate, and biased commentary.

The concessionaire can choose, for example, to spend more time on someone from a company which advertises on the parent channel or whose goals benefit the parent channel by inviting the people involved to one of the talk shows. Owning a TV concession is about much more than just broadcasting. It is a source of power, influence and money.

It is not surprising then that the 10-year concession is highly valued. There are four finalists in the current bidding process. TV Channel 2, which operated the channel for the past 13 years, is one, as is TV Channel 10, which is under the aegis of the R.G.E. Group, a privately-held media operation whose main assets, besides Channel 10, are NOGA Communications and Sports Channel 5. The other two are smaller companies: on is TV Channel 20, the other is funded by Ami Giniger, owner of the Ulpanei Herzliya company.

The final decision will be made in the coming month, as the concession of Channel 2 runs out in May.

Logic would seem to have it that the concession should not be given to Channel 2 for, after all, government funding should be spread out and a chance given to other companies.

A monopoly is not healthy in general and certainly when it comes to the media. One would also have liked to think the concession would not be given to a company which has violated its previous fiduciary commitments to the state, in addition to bilking the public of over a billion shekels, which is the amount the company should have paid the government over the years but refused to. It did, however, provide outrageous salaries for its “celebrity staff.” In other words, TV Channel 10 should also not be in the running.

But that’s not the way things are done in Israel. Both channels, that cry out that the government wants to control the media, actually not only control a sizable portion of the media market, but have an insatiable appetite for more. Any attempt by Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein to assure that the new concessionaire does not use its power to show the Knesset at its ugliest was nixed. In fact, politicians had very little influence over how the new concession would be formulated or awarded. Those who really influenced the process in the Knesset, thus far, were the TV stations themselves. They can afford to peddle their wares for the politicians’ fear of them is deathly.

So, what have we got? The public, as usual, is the loser.

It not only pays the concessionaire but in the process loses the ability to really know what is happening in the Knesset. The politicians have no say in the operation of the channel. It is the concessionaire who has the power, who can focus the spotlight on politician A or B and who can further any agenda – political, economic, cultural.

Israel’s democracy would profit if the media exercised a wee bit of self-control. The ideal situation would be for the Knesset itself to provide live coverage, available to all, at no cost. A media company or NGO that wants then to cover Knesset proceedings could do so. The only legislation needed would be to increase the number of legal TV stations in Israel, which means, for all intents and purposes, operating under free market conditions. This is precisely what the present concessionaires do not want; they prefer “self-control.”