What's Behind Netanyahu’s Battle Against Public Broadcasting?

In a democracy the role of a public broadcasting entity is to criticize the government. No wonder Netanyahu hates it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tries to consolidate control over Israeli media with new broadcaster.
Eran Wolkowski

In recent weeks, Benjamin Netanyahu managed to thoroughly confuse the people regarding the future of public broadcasting in Israel. The hoary, bloated Israel Broadcast Authority was supposed to die, and be succeeded by the Israel Broadcast Corporation, or “the Corporation,” for short. The prime minister even managed to divert the debate to his favorite places – left versus right, Ashkenazi versus Mizrahi, money for the poor instead of for privileged elites, the need to create a “balance” of content, rather than catering to the snobbish elites of Tel Aviv.

The rub is that all these arguments are nonsense, lies, balderdash, hooey.

The truth is, as usual, pretty simple. In a democratic country, and let’s assume for now that Israel is one, any media entity paid for by the public has one role: to critique. It should probe, it should demand explanations from the prime minister, the government, Knesset members, tycoons and any other power that collaborates with them.

Personal math

A public broadcast entity, and the stress is on the word “public,” is like the state comptroller. Or the Bank of Israel, the antitrust commissioner and the Israel Securities Authority, with one added feature – unlike them, it is supposed to bring its investigations and findings before the public. Why? So the people will have the tools and information to vote for elected representatives. Without that information, how would voters know who among the politicians is crooked and who’s straight? How can they know what the differences between candidates are – who is likely to keep his campaign promises and who isn’t?

Demonstrators outside the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem gather to support the public broadcasting entity that Netanyahu wants to quash.
Emil Salman

This is not my personal opinion. Academic research shows that the freer the media in a country, the less politicians and businessmen dare, or can, influence it. Thus such countries are more democratic. How is it checked?

Simple: International comparisons show that the freer the media, the more people actually bother to vote, and the more they participate in the national institutions.

Conversely, in countries where there is no free media and the public has no reliable information on the candidates, people don’t bother voting.

Still skeptical? All economic studies show that the freer the media, the higher the level of “democracy” – the better the economy performs; and the higher the people’s standard of living.

In other words, a free media translates into a higher standard of living for most people. Therefore, democratic nations encourage a free press. In some cases, democracy has an added moral dimension but for most people the math is personal – life, simply, is better.

To be clear, public broadcasting does not have to be “balanced.” Balance plays no role here. Public broadcasting is not meant to present an “objective” or any other particular picture of Israeli society.

That’s the job of the private-sector media outlets – different communities have their differing newspapers, websites and TV channels, and anybody wanting a broader view can read all the papers. Public broadcasting is supposed to be nothing more than a tool funded by democracy in order to preserve and strengthen itself, by giving viewers an accounting of the deeds of those in power. That is the essence of the idea and the only good reason to take money from people and put it into a media outlet.

What about other content – sports? Entertainment? Kiddie shows? At its base, public service isn’t supposed to engage in sports or entertainment, though the decision is often made to go there, but only in order to attract viewers who otherwise wouldn’t be caught dead turning on the channel, and who therefore wouldn’t gain exposure to the critique of the government and politicians. It’s a legitimate gambit – just like democratic countries fund campaigns to encourage people to vote.

Governments have plenty of ways they can help media outlets. Some countries finance public broadcasting outright, like Britain’s BBC or the French France24. Some give money to papers or other outlets that offer news as part of their services, even if they are private bodies, whatever their political outlook. In France for instance, VAT on newspapers is relatively low.

A little bit of nothing

The moment one realizes that the job of public broadcasting is to critique the powerful, one immediately understands why Netanyahu wants it dead. Nobody really likes criticism; certainly not people standing for reelection every few years. Indeed, many countries have no public broadcasting and if they do, it’s a mouthpiece for government or the supreme leader.

What might the solution be? Simple. If the people of Israel are prepared to foot the bill for public broadcasting, and never mind whether the money is collected through tax, VAT or some other mechanism, then they have to make sure the broadcast remains independent, utterly unconstrained by those who wield power. They need to know that this service devotes itself from morning to night to inquiries and critiques of the government. Otherwise it’s pointless.

Netanyahu doesn’t want that, however, so it probably won’t happen. In the balance of power between him and the public, his coalition partners, and the Histadrut labor federation, the Israel Broadcast Authority can’t just be shut down once and for all (and no, neither can Army Radio, or Educational TV). However, due to his lust for power and contempt for democracy, coupled with public ignorance over what public broadcasting actually is, Netanyahu will never let some broadcast company do what it is supposed to do.

Netanyahu’s solution is something in the middle – a corporation that will do a little bit of everything except its only real job. That is to defraud the public doubly. Not only will the public be denied the checks and balances it needs to assess the performance of its leaders; billions will be squandered on futile content that very few people will actually watch – content that the public gets for free, at a higher quality, on the commercial channels.

There is no question that Netanyahu knows perfectly well what public broadcasting is supposed to be, which is why he is determined to quash it or at least, disable it to the point of ineffectiveness. Not a few politicians around the world feel and act like he does, from Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Donald Trump.

Netanyahu cannot be allowed to win this battle, just as the tycoons must not be allowed to harness media outlets for their personal needs and just as editors and reporters must not accept diktats from the powers that be.