Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion had to skip the Israel Press Council’s founding meeting in May 1963 due to a Knesset debate. But he sent a congratulatory note that was read aloud to those assembled at the Jerusalem journalists’ club.
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“In its cultural and ethical level, our press doesn’t seem inferior to that of other countries,” Ben-Gurion wrote. Nevertheless, he continued, mistakes do occur “here and there,” and “it’s greatly to the editors’ credit that they agreed to establish a council that will stand watch over the fairness of the press.”
The council celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of its founding this year.
Zeev Sharef, who chaired the new council’s executive committee, told the founding conference that every journalist should always keep in mind the prayer said thrice daily in synagogues: “My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking falsehood.”
Haaretz devoted an editorial to the new body’s establishment, stressing the importance of the fact that it was completely independent and warning that it must not become an address for complaints by the government or other public bodies seeking “to make the press a mouthpiece for official positions” or suppress views that “those in power don’t like to hear.” It also noted that one of the council’s most important roles would be to set the boundaries between the public’s right to know and the individual’s right to privacy.
In December 1963, the council adopted a professional code of ethics for journalists that stressed the importance of freedom of the press while also emphasizing the need to ensure accuracy. The goal of journalism, it said, is “to provide the public with verified information and analysis that fits the facts.”
Haaretz’s archives contain many articles documenting the Press Council’s activity over its 50 years of existence, especially during its early years, when it was trying to establish itself to both the media and the public as a power to be reckoned with.
One early case it dealt with involved a complaint by the recently retired Ben-Gurion against the daily Maariv, for having published a letter he wrote to his successor as prime minister, Levi Eshkol. In May 1964, the council rejected the complaint, saying that since the letter “dealt with a saliently public issue,” its publication didn’t violate journalistic ethics.
In another case, from 1965, Maariv editor-in-chief Aryeh Dissentchik complained about an article published by the rival daily Yedioth about a certain industrialist. The industrlialist, Dissentchik said, had originally approached Maariv, offering to provide pictures of another industrialist, who had been arrested on suspicion of spying for Egypt, in exchange for “an article describing him as a successful industrialist.” After Maariv refused, the pictures subsequently appeared in Yedioth.
Yedioth argued in response that it was standard practice to reward public figures for tips by giving them publicity. But the council concluded that Yedioth’s deal with the man was indeed problematic, saying it differed from other deals of the sort Yedioth was describing.
Nevertheless, it refused to issue clear guidelines on the matter, saying that any attempt to control the relationship between journalists and public figures would not only fail, but would end in regulation of the press.
The council sometimes seemed to go overboard in interfering with journalistic work. In August 1968, for instance, it criticized an editorial cartoon published in Haaretz as “a distorted and unacceptable portrayal of the foreign minister’s remarks.” It also once criticized a poem by Haim Hefer that appeared in Yedioth Ahronoth, saying it was “based on a quote from the foreign minister’s remarks in the Knesset that was taken out of context.”
Haaretz wasn’t happy about such interference. In June 1970, the paper ran an editorial that accused the council of “exceeding its authority,” regarding the council’s debate over an article critical of the government that had been published in Haaretz Magazine. The council ultimately split over that article; some members charged that the article portrayed the prime minister as “monstrous” and the foreign minister as “spineless,” while others said that, even though it was harsh and exaggerated, articles of that sort were accepted practice in most democratic countries.
The Press Council celebrated its golden anniversary this week at a conference attended by dozens of journalists from 30 countries. The council’s president, former Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner, told Haaretz, “The future isn’t simple. The print media are experiencing economic difficulties that undermine freedom of the press. When it’s hard for a journalist to support himself, outside intervention by people with economic interests begins: They buy newspapers. At the same time, the government is always trying to say its piece and make its way into the public media...”
“When the government runs the media, there’s no need for ethics,” she continued. “Ethics exist when there is real freedom, but limits must be placed on it to ensure a press worthy of the name.”