Fresh New Israeli Public TV Free of Misconduct? Not So Fast

Humiliating employee lists, weakened gatekeepers and shuttered flagship departments: Israel's new public broadcaster is resorting to the crooked old ways

A television.
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Israel's Public Broadcasting Corporation, aka Kan, was launched in 2017 with a promise to avoid the misconduct that characterized its predecessor, and to produce television of excellence in the spirit of the BBC, including critical, independent journalism. An investigative report by Haaretz shows that little of that promise has been fulfilled.

First stage: The lists

The first stage in the debasement of Kan, the Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation, began with the hiring process in 2016. Lists were drawn up that ranked employees at its predecessor, the old Israel Broadcasting Authority, and profiled them in humiliating terms.

The new director general, Eldad Koblenz, had to abide by an agreement between the Histadrut labor federation and the relevant government ministries, under which he would hire 51 percent of the IBA’s staff. Hundreds were summoned for an interview before a committee; the lists were drawn up for this purpose. The process was initiated by Koblenz himself, who used his connections in IBA to collect intelligence about some 200 employees. The lists his informants provided were added to other, more substantive lists drawn up by Shimon Elkabetz, currently the commander of Army Radio and formerly a prominent figure in the IBA, and by Yasser Atila, head of Kan’s Arabic department.

Missing from the lists was an in-depth description of the employees’ professional experience. Entire careers were summed up with brief comments that included an array of derogatory epithets, such as “ugly” or “embittered,” and then the bottom line: “Keep your distance.”

Eldad Koblenz, director-general the Public Broadcasting Corporation, aka Kan.
Aya Efraim

For example, the work of David Witzthum, a veteran journalist of exceptionally broad horizons, was described as “boring, archaic and outmoded. Not to be hired if we’re going for innovation and rebranding.”

The opinion that was offered Koblenz about Amir Ivgi, from Channel 20, a former anchor of the nightly “Mabat” prime-time newscast, was, “[Hire] only if you have to. Bland, mediocre presenter. Not telegenic, in my opinion.” An additional comment stated: “Solid if ugly presenter, with superb voice Tremendous knowledge and journalistic instincts.”

Michal Rabinovich, another “Mabat” anchor, was portrayed in terms that most likely would not have been used for a man: “A pretty presenter, industrious and quite intelligent, though a bit stiff and cold on the screen. Heart of gold.”

Some of the remarks might be instructive in understanding the profile desired by the corporation’s chiefs. Thus, the verdict on Yael Kashani, “Mabat”’s outstanding editor: “Brilliant, Mizrahi, sharp-tongued, knowledgeable, but can’t be trusted to be obedient, either.” Meanwhile, the deputy director of the IBA news department, Alon Mazar, was described as having "plenty of television knowledge and knows how to accept political orders without nagging.”

A Kan spokesperson, asked to comment on these evaluations, said that “use was made solely of professional and relevant information” in the hiring process, adding, “Any other information, to the extent that it existed, as alleged by anonymous sources, was not relevant at any stage of the recruitment and establishment process.”

Stage 2: Tailor-made jobs

In the second stage of the new body’s degradation, job vacancies were tailored to fit handpicked candidates, instead of the other way around. Five people who took part in the process of integrating the employees described a rapid disintegration of the standard rules of management. “We were told whom they wanted to hire, and we worked backward,” one of the sources said. “Which means, you take the candidate’s CV and tailor the terms of the job opening accordingly.”

Descriptions for senior positions were rewritten and their threshold conditions were lowered. That was the case in the appointment of the deputy director general for human resources, Keren Harel-Harari, who was Koblenz’s right-hand person. The same was true also of the deputy director general for Kan Radio, the deputy director general for engineering and technology, and the corporation’s ombudsman.

Another method involved temporary appointments, without an official job-opening announcement. This accorded the desired candidate the opportunity to obtain the requisite experience to land the job permanently later. According to Koblenz, such methods are enshrined in a management philosophy by means of which “talented people are located, then catapulted three classes ahead to see how they get along.”

The low point in the human resources department came when Harel-Harari sought to fire an employee from the old IBA and assigned two people to scan her email to find evidence that she was doing her job poorly. However, even after the file on the employee was compiled, the legal department refused to allow the dismissal. In the end, it was Harel-Harari who found herself out of a job, following complaints by her staff.

Asked for comment by Haaretz, Harel-Harari issued this response: “Throughout my period of employment, I worked according to the directives of the [corporation’s] council and of the director general, and in coordination with them The job-announcement processes that were under my responsibility were executed lawfully and in accordance with ongoing legal advice.”

Stage 3: Weakening the gatekeepers

One phenomenon characteristic of the corporation’s initial period is the downgrading of the status of its gatekeepers. At the stage when Kan was established, retired judge Ezra Kama, former deputy president of the Jerusalem District Court, was appointed observer of the recruitment process. The 84-year-old Kama found himself committed to a tight, urgent timetable that involved numberless committees and meetings late into the night. “It was simply a crime to put him through that,” says a former senior official of Kan. “Knowing that the man gets tired in the afternoon, you still schedule all the important meetings for 5 P.M.”

Another gatekeeper deprived of its bite is the internal accounting staff. During the IBA period, this realm was allotted eight full-time positions. Kan, in contrast, has only one comptroller, Ayala Vardi, in a half-time position.

According to the Kan spokesperson’s unit, standardization in terms of job positions at the IBA was greater than in Kan, “for the most part without justification.” Vardi chose not to reply to questions. However, a source close to her notes that she has recently been allowed to fill another slot, at 60 percent of a full-time position, and has been granted a budget for outsourcing work.

Orly Maman, Kan’s ombudswoman, is the corporation’s third gatekeeper. She determines whether broadcasting content meets ethical standards, classifies content as offensive in the event of complaints that are found to be justified, and is also authorized to determine whether the chief editor is doing his job properly. There is innate tension in the dialogue between the ombudswoman and Kan’s management, but in the case of Maman, a former longtime PR person, it quickly escalated to the point where there was an attempt to remove her.

The corporation’s management claims that she is putting forward unreasonable demands that are not within her purview and that she is inclined to frequent outbursts of rage. Maman declined to talk to us, but colleagues note recurring attempts to curb her.

In March she was summoned to a hearing prior to dismissal, on the grounds that she had exceeded her authority and had poor human relations skills. She came to the hearing accompanied by lawyers who argued that as a gatekeeper whose independence is enshrined in the law, she can only be fired for criminal wrongdoing. The heads of Kan insisted on their authority to remove her from office, but in the end the move was frozen.

Kan stated in response: “The allegations you make are incorrect. The ombudswoman was indeed summoned to a hearing, but owing to the right to privacy, we do not intend to comment on this.”

Stage 4: Closure of flagship departments

Dozens of employees who spoke with us in the past few weeks describe the same trend: Many of those who came to Kan brimming with enthusiasm now feel that they are being ground into the dust. In a period of two years – from the time recruitment began until today – about 120 employees have left the corporation, constituting approximately 15 percent of its personnel. Management estimates that about half left at their own initiative and about half were fired.

No fewer than eight deputy directors general have left since the founding staff began work three years ago. In theory, each person has his own reasons, but in fact almost all were either dismissed or were forced out in the wake of poor relations with the director general, or a feeling that the working environment at Kan doesn’t allow them to wield managerial autonomy.

Doron Tsabari, one of Israel’s most acclaimed documentary filmmakers, was hired to run Kan's investigative desk - and then fired.
אלדד רפאלי

The resignation of the deputy director general for news, Shlomit Avraham Globerson, after just six months, was attributed to professional disagreements with Koblenz. Udi Hellman-Hacohen, deputy director general for engineering and technology, one of the most influential figures in Kan during the period of its establishment, left even before the new broadcaster went on-air. His temporary replacement, Dishon Bilgory, also didn’t last long. Worst hit was the television department, whose two deputy directors general soon left.

The shattered dream is also seen in what happened to Kan’s intended journalistic flagship, the investigative desk, modeled on the film “Spotlight” and headed by Doron Tsabari, one of Israel’s most acclaimed documentary filmmakers. Even before the start of broadcasts, Kan announced that the investigative desk was being cancelled, to be replaced by a magazine-style journalistic entity. Initiatives that Tsabari suggested for new investigative reports, concerning Culture Minister Miri Regev, the natural gas project and others, were suspended. Half a year later, Tsabari was told that in the wake of dissatisfaction with the amount of work he produced, he was being let go.

Tsabari “asked to be allotted an editor, two field researchers, three months for a preliminary investigation and anticipation of a broadcast a year in advance,” Kan’s deputy director general for news, Baruch Shai, relates. “We, as news, couldn’t allow ourselves that kind of pace.”

Another flagship project that was sunk before reaching its goal was the economic-social desk. Its aim had been to generate colorful, daring journalism that would make stories about pensions and insurance accessible even to 20-year-olds.

To Koblenz’s credit is his record as a talented manager, who led Galgalatz, Army Radio’s music station, to dazzling success and instilled a fresh spirit into Educational Television. Koblenz suggests that everyone wait before passing judgment, and is convinced that the critics, too, will soon find themselves cheering.

In the meantime, the first years of the public broadcaster add up to a gloomy conclusion: A talented group of people was created to close the corrupt IBA and instead created an institution that doesn’t recoil from using the same old methods.