Israel's State Radio Marred by Politics and Power Plays

Insiders say the Israel Broadcasting Authority, which manages about NIS 1 billion in tax revenue, is politicized and incompetent.

During a commercial break in "Yoman Haboker," Israel Radio's flagship morning news program, the head of the Israel Broadcasting Authority burst into the studio and began shouting. Yoni Ben-Menachem's wrath was directed at Nicola Rosenbaum, a senior award-winning editor.

Ben-Menachem was angry that the program's police reporter, Adi Meiri, had reported the murder of a state’s witness in Tel Aviv the night before by telephone rather than in person.

“The ones who were there won’t be quick to forget it,” said an IBA official. “The director general yelled at Rosenbaum in front of quite a few employees. It’s not at all clear why the director general bothers about things like that. After all, he has managers who report to him.”

On becoming IBA director general in 2011, Ben-Menachem decreed that reporters were to only speak on air from the studio – a change from the previous policy, which allowed some editorial discretion on the matter. But a couple days after yelling at Rosenbaum, Ben-Menachem gave an interview about the IBA's preparations for the Olympic Games over the phone, according to the official.

This little anecdote is hardly shocking in a place as tense as the IBA. But it seems to reflect the current atmosphere of the organization, at least for some IBA employees.

In conversations about a series of controversial incidents that have shaken the IBA in the past year, terms like “chaos,” “a mess,” “reign of terror,” “fear,” and “scores being settled” came up repeatedly.

An IBA spokesperson dismissed such characterizations.

“There is no atmosphere of fear in the IBA. It is regrettable that you're trying to create ‘imaginary fear’ in concert with interested parties," he said. "As for broadcasters speaking by telephone on ‘Yoman Haboker,’ the manager of Israel Radio has issued a directive on that topic, and your attempt to rewrite the IBA’s directives to make them fit the false thesis you wish to promote is foolish," he said. "The director general of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, Yoni Ben-Menachem, is the editor-in-chief by law, and he has the authority to reprimand any reporter or editor who violates the directives."

Losing balance

Hullabaloo most recently erupted at the IBA in late July, when Keren Neubach was assigned a co-broadcaster for her popular morning show "Seder Yom." At the time, IBA officials privately said they were putting rightist personalities on the show to "balance" Neubach's leftist "agenda." But many people – especially journalists – accused the IBA of trying to drive Neubach out of her job. Her supporters note she was assigned a new co-host just two weeks after the IBA gave her an excellent performance evaluation, with the only criticism being that she spoke a little quickly.

Film director Doron Tsabari is well-acquainted with the workings of the IBA, having made the film Revolution 101 about an attempt to create change there. He was one of the people who organized the demonstrations against the changes at "Seder Yom" at Israel Radio's studios in Tel Aviv.

“It’s interesting that they’ve added another presenter to balance ‘Seder Yom,’” he said. “This is a program that is highly successful, tells listeners what’s really going on, where the big money is and what the real interests are that control the country – and it’s there that they’ve added a presenter, for balance.”

"Seder Yom" was conceived by the IBA's previous management, when Arie Shaked was the managing director. After a lot research, Israel Radio officials determined that there was demand for a morning program that dealt with issues on the civil, social and economic agenda. They had already decided to give the time slot a single presenter to help strengthen the show's identity.

“One of the main reasons for persecuting Neubach is that the program was created during the previous management era and was a success on top of it,” an IBA official said. “By going after her, the management has gone a bit too far, for the simple reason that even Neubach’s ideological opponents admit the program is a success. She may take a side, but she does so in a fair and honest manner.”

Selecting rightist columnist Menachem Ben as Neubach's first co-broadcaster only made matters worse, infuriating people across the political spectrum. Ben has never covered economic or social matters, and was fired from his jobs on the Channel 2 television channel Keshet and the television magazine Rating after arguing in favor of considering anti-gay legislation.

The IBA had made previous attempts to sabotage Neubach and the program. In November, Neubach was removed as the presenter of the investigative television program “Mabat Sheni” on the ludicrous grounds that she was not telegenic. At the same time, Mirit Hoshmand, the program’s editor, was summoned to a disciplinary hearing that was supposed to precede her dismissal – a move that ultimately failed.

“Any thinking person can see the goal here is to hurt Keren, to make her sick and tired of broadcasting, perhaps in the hope that she will give up and quit,” wrote Danny Zaken, chairman of the Jerusalem Journalists’ Association, in a letter to Mickey Miro, the head of Israel Radio.

Quixotic reform

The IBA's handling of Neubach is part of a historic reform being overseen by the IBA's management, which is appointed by Israel's president every three years. The reform measures – spelled out in legislation drafted by the IBA, Prime Minister’s Office and Finance Ministry and to be signed in a ceremony on August 5 – grant the IBA an extra NIS 700 million in state grants and loans.

At the same time, the controversial legislation lowers the IBA's obligation to invest in original Israeli content in 2012 from NIS 180 million to NIS 75 million. Writers' groups, which have loudly opposed the changes at the IBA, say the authority is breaking promises it made to invest in local programs and is not even meeting its legal obligations. They say they intend to petition the High Court of Justice.

“The State of Israel is giving money to an agency whose behavior is outrageously irresponsible,” said Uri Rosenwaks, the chairman of the Israeli Documentary Filmmakers Forum. “They are giving money to people who are running the IBA as if it were their own private stall in the market.”

About NIS 55 million in funding has already been approved for original productions, but leaders of the writers' groups say the IBA has put up a smokescreen. It fails to tell writers exactly where the money is going and what kind of productions it is looking for, they say.

But the IBA spokesperson said, “The Israel Broadcasting Authority holds ongoing talks with writers and will continue to do so in the future. The major task on which the IBA is now focusing is completing the reform and signing the appointment agreement on August 5. Afterward, the writers will be invited to appear before the [IBA] plenum, as they were promised. The IBA’s agencies decided regarding the division of the 2012 budget for original productions. They promised 45 percent of the budget would be allocated for drama productions, 25 percent for documentaries and 30 percent for culture and entertainment."

By adding a second broadcaster to "Seder Yom," the IBA inspired the National Federation of Israel Journalists to cancel the show's second hour in protest. Many people saw this as further proof that the IBA – displeased with Neubach's popularity – was trying to make her job so unpleasant that she resigned.

Friends with benefits

Although the public seems to have lost interest in the IBA after so many stories of scandalous management practices, the organization still manages close to a billion shekels of television tax revenues, and its basic problems remain unresolved.

“If people knew how the money from their television tax was being managed, their hair would stand on end,” a former high-ranking IBA official said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if one day, when people realize how their money is really being handled, they organize a consumer boycott against paying the television tax.”

According to ShukiTausig, editor of the online media journal “Ha’ayin Hashvi’it,” the IBA is in a particularly bad state.

“The IBA has been run badly for quite some time," she said. "But under the rule and supervision of [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, it has gone from being a badly run place with petty internal battles to a place that looks like something out of the comics – you see it and you don’t believe it. Only a management like this is capable of dropping someone like Menachem Ben, a clown who operates on the fringes of the Israeli media, into its flagship program.”

Netanyahu, whose is also the minister in charge of the IBA, is responsible for appointing the authority's leadership – its chairman Amir Gilat, and its director general Yoni Ben Menahem. Several members of the IBA’s executive committee are supporters of the ruling center-right Likud party or Netanyahu.

The day Ben-Menachem was appointed as director general, his senior aide, Zelig Rabinowitz, wrote on his Facebook page: “We have our best weapons at the ready,” referring to the battle against “petty and unstable” people within the IBA.

In response to that status, Ben-Menachem warmly thanked Rabinowitz, adding, “With help from Amir Gilat, Esti Applebaum, Yoav Horowitz, Geula Avidan, Yaakov Naveh, Lena Kreindlin, Atef Kayouf and the members of the IBA plenum and the employees who are good and loyal, we will make changes for a better future. Of course, we cannot forget [Major General (ret.)] Yaakov Borovsky [once suspected of trying to bribe his way into the post of national police chief], who combats corruption!”

Many of the men mentioned above [the plenum has a total of 31 members] are considered friendly to the current government. Gilat, the chairman of the IBA, is a former adviser to Netanyahu. Horowitz ran Netanyahu’s campaign for the party primary. Applebaum, a former spokeswoman of the Likud, was a member of the 100 Days Committee in Netanyahu’s current government. Yaakov Borovsky, a former major general in the Israel Police, is close to Netanyahu and to Likud. Avidan is associated with the ultra-Orthodox religious Shas party.

Messy management

The IBA's poor management and decision-making extend beyond its handling of Neubach.  IBA officials moved the broadcast time of Channel 1's main news program, "Mabat LaHadashot." This threw the scheduling of Israel Radio, which also broadcasts "Mabat," into disarray.  Eventually, it was decided that from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. – a period considered the second tier of prime time in radio – a program combining current affairs, finance, culture and sports would be broadcast, with three presenters from various fields sitting together in the studio.

There was no advance preparation, and those involved were given just a few days to prepare. In subsequent weeks, the broadcast schedule continued to undergo changes, with editors and presenters getting updates just before going on air.

Things were not much better in the television department. In May, the IBA began airing "Mabat," at 7:52 p.m., as was widely reported in the media, so as to lock in the viewers before the competing news broadcasts on Channel 2 and Channel 10 began. The IBA spokesperson said this decision was made by the IBA plenum's content committee.

But in June, one of the shows co-anchors, Yinon Magal, suddenly resigned. At about the same time, the other co-anchor, Merav Miller, went on maternity leave. Anyone who clicks past "Mabat" these days will notice a rotating panel of presenters such as Ya’akov Ahimeir, Oded Shahar and completely unknown faces.

IBA officials say the organization mishandled Magal's departure, leading to the situation today, where the news program's rating have plunged below those of the commercial channels just before the start of the Olympic Games, which could have given it a boost. They point out that Magal was actually forced to resign, as indicated by his letter of resignation, which was published in the media.

The IBA has proven less adept at hiring than firing. During the current administration, about 100 tenders have been issued for various positions. Such competition is welcome, since many of the IBA's managers are in temporary positions due to internal battles – a situation that has been witheringly criticized in state comptroller reports.

But within the IBA, some officials say that the tenders are not handled appropriately. They note that in many cases, the management and members of the executive committee do not ask any questions about the winning candidates – raising eyebrows. And in recent months, the IBA has been embroiled in legal turmoil regarding various appointments.

The IBA spokesperson said, "All the changes that were made in the news station were made out of professional considerations, in accordance with the decision of the IBA’s content committee."

Amos Biderman
Olivier Fitoussi