Israel’s Broadcast Reform Plan Falls Victim to Politics

A year after the Knesset approved a new broadcast law, the Israel Broadcasting Authority is still alive and airing. But a reform-minded treasury has kept it struggling for funds.

Yael Engelhart

It was just one of dozens of text messages that Finance Ministry Director General Shai Babad has received from Israeli content producers.

“Hello, Shai. My name is Yair Kadar, and I am working on a documentary series for Channel 1 television on the giants of Hebrew culture. In violation of the contract signed and approved between us, you are not making payments to me and by employees are not getting paid. I view you as being directly responsible for depriving me of my livelihood from my productions due to the failure to transfer funding to the Israel Broadcasting Authority.”

Another producer, Yael Shavit, who is in the middle of production on a program called “The Last Supper,” wrote Babad that she has loans of her own and is a “captive in your hands, unable to halt the project and stop the economic disaster that I am facing.”

A year after the Knesset approved a new Public Broadcasting Law that dissolves the much-loathed Israel Broadcasting Authority and replaces it with a new and hopefully more efficient entity, the entire process is stalled.

The IBA is throttled by a lack of funds, its staff are not leaving as they were supposed to, the new entity hasn’t been formed and politicians are interfering more than ever in the IBA’s operations.

The blame is being laid primarily at the doorstep of the Finance Ministry, for failing to makes funds available that would let the IBA operate in the interim. The IBA owes producers about 20 million shekels ($5.3 million) and is barely managing to make its payroll.

“The Finance Ministry is strangling us,” IBA Director General Yona Wiesenthal complained at a recent Knesset hearing.

The IBA’s operations are quite extensive. Even if its Channel 1 television trails for audience behind commercial broadcasters, it operates a network of popular radio stations, among them the news and public affairs station Reshet Bet and Israeli pop music station Reshet Gimmel, Arabic-language broadcaster Reshet Dalet, classical station Kol Hamusica and alternative music station 88FM.

‘Scandalous wage agreements’

Finance Ministry sources respond that if the IBA had been a private business facing the same financial troubles, salaries would have been cut dramatically. But the law does not permit pay cuts at the broadcasting authority.

“The scandalous wage agreements are causing a waste of public funds,” a ministry source says.

The receiver appointed to wind up the IBA’s operations submitted a plan to the ministry that would cut the IBA’s expenses significantly and limit its payroll to 800, compared to 1,500 today. If that were to happen, treasury officials believe the IBA could operate on a monthly budget of 30 million shekels instead of the current 50 million. Last week officials agreed they would allocate the smaller figure to the IBA every month. The Finance Ministry also intends to pay the producers, too, but officials refuse to throw what they call “bad money” away on the IBA labor agreements. They are willing, they say, to provide additional funding on the condition that the law passed last year to close and replace the IBA is implemented.

But right now no solution is in the offing, say treasury sources. Workers are not leaving, the IBA complex at Sarona in a highly prized area of central Tel Aviv is not being vacated, nor are steps are not yet being taken to set up the new broadcaster as was supposed to be happening.

The Knesset legislation revamping public broadcasting is based on 2014 recommendations of a government panel, the Landes committee, that were based on two assumptions.

The first was that the IBA had long ceased to fulfilling the role entrusted to it to provide quality programming. If so, there was no justification for taxpayers funding it to the tune of 900 million shekels annually.

The second assumption was that the current highly competitive and fast moving media scene required an efficient and independent public broadcasting entity insulated from political influence and managed flexibly.

The old IBA was considered incurable, so the Landes panel recommended a new entity take its place.

“The corrupt body of the broadcasting authority has long been buried,” said the finance minister at the time, Yair Lapid, at a news conference where the Landes committee’s recommendations were presented. “Now we are just signing the death certificate.”

But that’s not quite what happened. Pressure from the public and IBA unions caused the Knesset to link the two goals. The IBA would not be shut down until the new broadcasting corporation was set up.

That makes current IBA employees who want to leave at this point hostages to the creation of a new broadcasting company. The new corporation will not come into being until the IBA is shut down and its resources freed up.

When the broadcast law was passed in July last year, it still looked like it had good prospects for being implemented, in part because the reform plan was backed by the relevant ministers.

But both Lapid and Communications Minister Gilad Erdan subsequently stepped down while the Finance Ministry became even more tight-fisted about providing funds. Meanwhile, IBA workers stiffened their own positions in light of their lack of confidence in the Finance Ministry and the politicians in general.

Now it is the politicians who are disrupting the plan. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in the absence of a communications minister wears that hat, too, has refused to appoint a public broadcasting council who had been recommended by a nominating committee.

Spirit of the law

It is now clear that the law will not be implemented in any way that keeps with the spirit of the Landes committee, certainly not by next March 31, as the law requires.

The finance and communications ministries have not found a way to enable the temporary director of the new broadcasting corporation, Eldad Koblentz, to set up a news division when he cannot even appoint reporters to a division that doesn’t have its own director. The news division director is due to be appointed by public bid the terms of which are to be set by the broadcasting council, but there is no council.

And the problem isn’t just that there is no news division. Koblentz is supposed to be recruiting 400 employees. He can’t interview them all himself, of course, so he needs department heads, but appointing department heads requires a public tender process that also cannot proceed without the appointment of broadcast council members.

In addition, there are endless operational issues that stand in the way of setting up a new entity in such a short amount of time, including a lack of program content at the new broadcasting corporation’s disposal and the logistics involved in news department employees working for the IBA one day and the new broadcaster the next. And where will the new corporation be based? Temporarily television production in Tel Aviv is due to move to the offices of Mizmor Productions and Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet is to move to facilities in Ramat Hahayal in Tel Aviv, but that’s just temporary since the new corporation’s offices are slated to be in Jerusalem.

The Finance Ministry’s current fight is with representatives of IBA staff. Progress on a plan worked out between the Finance Ministry and the Histadrut labor federation, which calls for hundreds of employees to leave the IBA before it is closed, are proceeding sluggishly. At this point, about 800 employees have asked for information on severance terms, but preliminary meetings have only been held with 360 of them and only about 50 have actually signed documents providing for early their resignation.

Some of the employee representatives are unhappy with the current law, which provides that only a quarter of IBA employees will be hired by the new broadcast corporation. They are asking that the figure be raised to 95%. That would deprive Koblentz of deciding who gets to stay and who isn’t right for the new agency. For the time being, since the operation of the new entity is dependent on the closure of the IBA, its employees are refusing to leave, delaying the closure. IBA employees have even refused to provide Koblentz with a details on the IBA’s equipment inventory.

The Landes committee recommended that salary expenses not exceed 35% of the new corporation’s budget. Wages account for more than half of the IBA’s expenses, but to get the new broadcasting law passed, the law provides that any employees transferred to the new entity will get exactly the same salary terms that they had before. That’s expected to benefit 25% of the staff of the new entity and result in 30 million shekels in unanticipated annual expenses.

The law is also not consistent with the prevailing situation in the broadcast sector as a whole. The law provides for 90 million shekels a year for original high-quality productions, but professionals in the field say that’s just enough for one drama program a week or two documentary series. For purposes of comparison, commercial television’s Channel 2 invests 240 million shekels a week in its broadcast content.