The end of the age of the barons
The concentration of media power in the hands of so few has led to cases of close friendships developing between leading government and police officials and some of the media barons, in a manner reminiscent of the stumbling democracies of the Third World.
In recent months, several articles about a bill to abolish the monopolies and cartels in the media have appeared in Ha'aretz and other newspapers. Because most of these articles have naturally focused on the parliamentary struggle and on the interest groups surrounding the bill, a few words should be devoted to explaining the ideological background and the factual basis for this innovative legislation.
At the beginning of the 20th century, capitalist America began to acknowledge the existence of what is called "the paradox of the free market," namely, that the freedom to accumulate economic and business power is liable to lead to the elimination of free competition. "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair and "The Robber Barons" by Matthew Josephson - which described how the giants of industry and finance influence the politicians, and how they suffocate their small competitors - contributed to bringing about legislation against the monopolies and cartels in the United States.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the media in tiny Israel are effectively controlled, behind the scenes, by four families of homegrown media barons: Mozes, Fishman, Nimrodi and Schocken. Not only is business competition harmed, but so is free and fair democratic competition.
Yedioth Ahronoth is the only case in a Western country of a newspaper that controls over 50 percent of the daily press. Apparently, no Western democracy has a newspaper that even approaches its level of control. The largest newspaper in the United States, USA Today, controls almost 3 percent of the national market, while the most dominant newspaper in a Western nation, Bild, accounts for no more than 30 percent of the daily newspapers sold in Germany.
Even in capitalist America there are limitations on newspapers' holdings in the fields of radio and television. In Israel, on the other hand, Yedioth, Ma'ariv and Ha'aretz, or their owners, are allowed to have holdings in TV's Channel Two, cable TV, radio stations, local newspaper chains and the largest Internet sites in the country.
When one examines the brutal exploitation of media centralization against the business rivals of the newspaper owners during the past decade, including against their own employees in cases of labor conflicts; when one observes the fear on the part of ministers and Knesset members to risk criticism of the dominant media groups or legislation opposed to their interests, then a gloomy picture emerges. When one adds to that the articles that looked like attempts by Yedioth Ahronoth to politically annihilate (by means of what later turned out to be false claims) three leading candidates for prime minister - Ehud Barak in the affair of the accident at the IDF base at Tze'elim, Benjamin Netanyahu in the bribery and gifts affair, and Avraham Burg in the skylight windows affair - the picture gets bleak.
To this we must add the fact that the concentration of media power in the hands of so few has led to cases of close friendships developing between leading government and police officials and some of the media barons, in a manner reminiscent of the stumbling democracies of the Third World. This makes the picture blacker than black. At the end of the 1990s, the phenomenon intensified, to the point where senior members of the police were divided into a group of friends of Ma'ariv and a group of friends of Yedioth Ahronoth.
The law for the Prevention of Monopolies and Cartels in the Media, which was approved during the Knesset's last session at first reading, with the support of MKs on the right and the left, is designed to change the situation fundamentally, via three parallel moves: abolition of interlocking ownerships; prevention of cartel-like practices; and dismantling or limitation of monopolies.
The bill stipulates that the large national newspapers, or their controling shareholders, will have to sell their holdings in Channel Two, in the cable companies, in the business newspaper Globes, and in other national Hebrew-language media groups, and that the leading newspapers will refrain from agreements involving journalistic or economic cooperation and financial support of one another. In addition, it rules out the possibility of control by one newspaper or newspaper owner over the daily newspaper market, by setting an upper limit of 50 percent of market share.
The proposed law is not "anti-media," as claimed at the time by the headline on the front page of Ha'aretz, but rather a law which is entirely pro-media. It comes to limit the centralization and the exaggerated freedom of action of the media barons in Israel, so as to ensure real competition and mutual criticism among a number of strong and independent media groups. That is the only way to save both the media and democracy.
The writer is a member of Knesset from the Likud party.