'It's nicer to watch television than to work for it'
A year ago today, on February 5, 2007, Haim Yavin, the presenter of the Channel 1's "Mabat" ("Look") evening news program, signed off for the last time, the way he always has, with, "We've finished here, Shalom."
Thirty-nine years earlier, in 1968, he said the same words for the first time. But last year, despite the occasion, not a single muscle moved in Yavin's face, there was not even a hint of a raised eyebrow. The man who was the most experienced and statesmanlike of the television personalities in Israel vacated his chair to little fanfare.
It's not that Channel 1 did not try to celebrate him. Newscasters from the competing channels were invited onscreen, and Yavin's two designated replacements, Merav Miller and Yinon Magal, all dressed up and emotional, also gave him their blessings. Yavin, at least on the screen, refused to get excited.
"I didn't want this ritual," he explained this week. "My job was to bring the news and I'm happy that my departure from "Mabat" was conducted in a dignified and elegant manner. It could have been different."
In the year since then, Yavin, 76, has managed to create a new schedule for himself. He presents a weekly radio program on Channel 103 FM, is writing an autobiography, is beginning to work on a new documentary series about the basic laws of the State of Israel, and occasionally serves as a moderator of special events or as a lecturer.
Next week, on the eve of the elections, Yavin will be sitting in the studio as a commentator for former competitors Channel 2. Yavin hasn't quite disappeared from the local media landscape, yet next Tuesday will be the first time in the 40 years of his career that the central election broadcast will take place without him.
In the Tel Aviv cafe where the meeting with Yavin takes place, several of those present seem to be unaware that he has retired. Four women nearby cast inquisitive glances at the former "Mabat" presenter. When he gets up to talk on his cellphone, they look at him and begin to whisper. Yavin is also apparently aware of the effect.
Don't you miss being in the center of the action, even a little? "I can't describe how much I don't," Yavin says, and falls silent.
They say that even before you retired from the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) the idea of refreshing the ranks came up and they asked you to leave "Mabat" and to take on the job of presenting "Mabat Sheni" ("Second Look," a TV news magazine).
"That's not a rumor. For a long time Moti Sklar, [the director of the IBA], wanted me to present "Mabat Sheni," and there were other ideas. I came to the conclusion that that period is behind me. It's not that if today they entice me to come and present some program I'll feel embarrassed, because it's not that I'm sick of it. But when I retired, I think that I did so elegantly."
Were you afraid of the moment?
"I was very afraid of that moment of descending from the podium, but they did it in an tactful and genuine way and I felt it was behind me. Now, in advance of the elections, they're asking me whether I miss it. So the answer is no. Not only don't I miss presenting and moderating, but in some way it belongs to the past and I feel a sense of relief."
Why? "How can I say it funnily? It's much more pleasant to watch television than to work for it."
I would think that it depends what kind of television.
"It depends what kind of television. It belongs to a period that's behind me. It's as though they were to ask whether I miss my adolescence or my childhood. Yes, I miss the time when I was young and handsome, but not all the rest. To a certain extent I'm glad that I got rid of the tremendous burden; to carry that thing on your back, the responsibility, the job and the criticism."
And the action, the interest, the influence and the centrality?
"Thanks, but I have enough action. I've never been unemployed and even during "Mabat" I worked on 'The Land of the Settlers' and 'Blue ID Cards' (two documentary series directed by Yavin and aired on Channels 1 and 2, respectively). I've made over 80 documentaries in my life and that's a good substitute that fills my head. Aside from that, I have a radio program and I'll finish writing my autobiography in a few months."
Next week, when you sit in the Channel 2 studio as a commentator, and it will be the first election broadcast since 1969 that you won't host, won't you feel a twinge?
"No, I really won't. I did the exit poll broadcast 10 times and it's hard to describe the tension in the studio during the last 15 minutes," he says, enumerating the most turbulent elections he anchored, from Menachem Begin's "Upheaval" of Labor for the first time since the founding of the state, to Benjamin Netanyahu versus Shimon Peres. "It's a tremendous burden. Maybe it's also my age that is making way for the moment when I'll sit comfortably, ready to express my opinion, because an element that I would call freedom is added to this entire retirement from the statesmanlike nature of public broadcasting."
Maybe the reason for the relief Yavin now feels can be found in the last point. Maybe it is the same reason that motivated him to retire. A year ago the late Ehud Asheri, then the Haaretz television critic, wrote about Yavin and his traditional approach, opposed to the opinionated behavior of younger news presenters. Yavin does not deny this.
"I'm opposed to that. I'm opposed," he says. "On the first page of the newspaper there are news items. You want opinions? Turn to the inside page. I distinguish between news items and opinions, totally. This mixture within the news broadcast, where they allow a person to express his opinions, I'm opposed."
And is it possible that in this situation you were somewhat at a loss?
"I have always been opposed, and I still am. At the same time, I did the series and the films, but I continued to do "Mabat" with what I considered total objectivity. There was an attempt to be fair and objective and that seemed right to me, not like mixing an opinion with news item."
Did you understand the attack against Channel 2 presenter Yonit Levy during Operation Cast Lead?
"I justify her totally. A presenter is not a robot, and if she expressed her pain and if here and there she used questions marks - why are you raising your eyebrows?"
Because although it happened quite a few years ago, your small, symbolic raised eyebrow was considered scandalous. You are the last of the presenters who tried to stay balanced.
"The story is not new, nor is that of Yonit Levy. I have never thought that a presenter is a robot. He is human and he cannot really express an opinion but he can behave humanely."
Do you watch the news that Yonit Levy presents?
"Here comes the question. I don't discriminate, I watch all the channels."
And? "It depends on the hour of course. If I miss the channels that broadcast at 8:00 PM, or if I'm busy, I watch Channel 1. Otherwise I watch Channel 2 or 10."
Do you like what you see? "As opposed to what you may think, the problem is not with the presenters," says Yavin, criticizing TV's role as a medium for entertainment and not knowledge. "Today when you do a lineup for a news program you think which juicy item will bring ratings and whether I can open or close with it. The entertainment and commercial potential dictates the length of the item and even whether there will be an item. That's my basic criticism of the news programs."
Yavin is critical of the treatment given the case of Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish, an Israeli-trained Palestinian doctor who lost three daughters in Gaza while speaking on the air.
"In my opinion they manipulated his suffering to some extent for the benefit of the ratings. It could have been shortened, Shlomi Eldar could have been asked to leave the studio, and if he wanted to take care of the doctor, to do so in a dignified way."
The way in which reporters and presenters do their work also stems from that. That's also a matter for criticism. "I know that it's juicy to have me name names, because there was a difference between Yonit on the one hand, and [Ya'akov] Eilon and [Miki] Haimovitz [the Channel 10 news presenters], between Alon Ben-David [Channel 10] and Roni Daniel [Channel 2] and Yoav Limor [Channel 1]. I plead guilty, but I didn't manage to watch him too much. Part of the problem is that the other news programs are earlier. If I see my friends London and Kirschenbaum [on Channel 10] as well, I plead guilty that I stay and already watch the news."
You're allowed to admit that the program is good in your opinion.
"It's good, as they're all good, but it benefits from the comrades in arms, KirschenLondon. I do think that those reporters - and I won't mention names - who were to the point, factual and spoke with reservations about the war, did their job. Alongside that, there was also preaching to the chief of staff about how to run the war. The problem begins the moment that a reporter becomes more chief of staff than the chief of staff, and I'm not mentioning names."
And what do you think of your replacements Yinon Magal and Merav Miller?
"They do their work well, really. I'm not saying that in order to do my duty. The presenters, they and their competitors, do the work well. It's a different style. When I began in television as a newscaster, it was an authoritarian period. The presenter was authoritative and the only one. Here there's something lighter, sportier, and that's something that is also related to the essence of the medium, which has become lighter and less serious."
And if we're talking about replacements, it's impossible not to talk about the designated one, Geula Even; a few weeks before she was supposed to take his place, the negotiations between her and the IBA failed. The relationship between Even and Yavin has almost always been a big question mark. Apparently there was never any great love lost there, and even now Yavin's face falls when her name comes up in conversation.
"It's a story, ah, I prefer not to discuss that story. I'm not ignoring it but I don't feel a need to discuss it."
Do you think she does good work?
"A very talented girl, I've always thought so."
And that's it. Yavin, although the story is over, and although he does it in a very friendly way, is not happy to expand. Apparently it's not the only sensitive point regarding the IBA. A remark he made in a story that journalist Ben Shani did on him for Channel 10 news a year ago angered many of his colleagues. Yavin referred to the employees of the IBA as clerks and in response some threatened to boycott his farewell party. Today Yavin expresses himself more cautiously.
"Contrary to popular opinion, alongside the covert and overt unemployment that exists in the IBA there are a lot of people who work really hard," he says.
But you agree, certainly from the perspective of a year that gave you an opportunity to watch others, that there is room for criticism, for example about the pace things are conducted there.
"Maybe some of the criticism is justified, but I ask what news story can be covered completely within two minutes? And if you're referring to the pace of work, then that's really not true. There are people who work at a dizzying pace and there are those who work at a soporific pace. That's true everywhere, there's covert unemployment even on the commercial channels and I'm not sure that there's such a big difference."
Look how long it's taking to implement a rehabilitation plan.
"Let's see how long it takes to rehabilitate Channel 10. What should be done? Should it be cancelled? Should the Voice of Music also be canceled, because it doesn't have a high percentage of listeners?"
The Voice of Music costs the taxpayer much less.
"Even bringing up the idea, to weigh the survival of public broadcasting, is wrong. It's no secret that the public channel is sick. But you have to see that you deal with it without throwing the baby out with the bath water."
Can it be rehabilitated?
"There's still a long way to go and perhaps additional painful steps are necessary. The easiest thing is to close it, but I think that's a mistake. We can raise our hands and surrender and there won't be a public channel, but that alternative is worse than the existing one."