The Israeli Politicians' Hold Over Army Radio

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz and other officials attend a news conference after the completion of a new underground barrier along the Gaza Strip frontier in southern Israel in December.
Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz and other officials attend a news conference after the completion of a new underground barrier along the Gaza Strip frontier in southern Israel in December. Credit: REUTERS/Ammar Awad
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

The last time I expressed my opinion as a former soldier at the Israeli Army Radio, to the effect that the station should be shut down or privatized, I aroused the anger of my former comrades who claim I am “spitting into the well from which I drank”. If that is so, then open your umbrellas.

Following leaks from confidants of Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi about closing Army Radio because “soldiers shouldn’t be involved in politics,” a headhunting committee will apparently be established nevertheless to select a permanent commander.

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In recent months the position has been filled on an interim basis by Galit Alstein, who maintained the industrial peace expected of her and is now the leading candidate for the permanent appointment. The defense minister’s office claims he hasn’t given up on his plans, but the attorney general is demanding it be approved by the cabinet, and it doesn’t look as though there is a majority in favor. In spite of that, Gantz insists that the new commander may yet be given the job of shutting down or privatizing the station. In other words, a Sword of Damocles continues to hover above Army Radio.

This saga only proves the degree to which Israeli politicians continue to hold the dying radio station by the throat. Carrots and sticks are constantly being waved at its commanders to ensure they follow the political line desired by the government of the moment. First, there’s a government that wants right-wing commentator Yaakov Berdugo on the air, then there’s a government that doesn’t want him. Both exploit Army Radio’s total dependence on it to reach the desired outcome. Only shutting it down, privatizing it or significantly reforming (for instance, by merging it with the Kan Public Broadcasting Corp.) will end this story of chronic abuse. One public broadcasting company is enough in Israel, although that alone will not solve everything.

In his excellent book “The BBC: Myth of a Public Service,” sociologist Tom Mills claims that despite its halo of independence and objectivity (or, alternatively, claims of a “left-wing” bias), in effect the BBC has always served first and foremost the British elite and the country’s centers of power. The news it airs is almost always what has been approved for broadcasting by the establishment, through official and unofficial means.

Mills describes the historically negative attitude of public broadcasting in Great Britain to popular protests that opposed the goals of the governments, the involvement of the secret services in content, and how the business sector in the 1900s established its sphere of influence.

All the organizational and journalistic norms at the BBC, he claims, have been deeply shaped over the years by the British establishment and by interest groups. The BBC has become the international ideal for public broadcasting, but it is directly or indirectly dependent on the country’s political system for licensing, budgets and appointments. It is not just the mouthpiece of the government, it is an integral part of it.

And that is precisely the problem with glorifying public broadcasting while ignoring the reality in which it operates: With all the safeguards for protecting it from interference, it will always be subject to the will of politicians and the fashions of mainstream thinking. The imaginary “public” to whom they are supposed to “serve” must not be offended. An invisible but inflexible line divides what may and may not be broadcast.

At Army Radio, you will never hear about the “occupation,” that’s clear. But how often have you heard that word in the Kan news broadcasts? It’s true that the commercial media is also subject to the censorship of ratings and to political and business influences, as the criminal case against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has demonstrated so well. Apparently, we won’t live in a perfect world, but it’s certainly possible to begin by redeeming Army Radio by removing the whipping hand the politicians have over it.

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