Once upon a time Israel's Channel 13 gave expression to a range of voices and opinions. It was a venue where creative people strove to create an alternative to other channels' fake patriotism or crass commercialism. As of Tuesday, that’s over. The last nail in the coffin of its politicization was hammered in by the cancelation of its only satirical show, called “Gav HaUma” (Literally "The back of the nation" in Hebrew).
This coffin has been taking shape for years, since the cement baron Len Blavatnik, a friend of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, bought the network. Lest anyone has forgotten, it was Netanyahu who urged him to buy the company, which was losing money.
Blavatnik has no other media investments in Israel, doesn’t live here and even told police investigators that he couldn’t care less about the local media.
But Netanyahu does care, and how. While putting on a show of being victimized by the media – which drink his blood / lynch him / persecute his wife and son – and wailing that strings were being pulled behind the scenes, he was turning Israel’s major media outlets, one by one, into tools in his battle for survival. Nothing illustrates this better than the fact that “Gav Ha’uma” was taken off the air in gross violation of its contract.
Channel 13 in its current incarnation has no alternative satirical program. And that’s just how Netanyahu wants it. The audience’s scornful laughter grated on his ears.
Since Netanyahu hasn’t yet managed to institute an orderly dictatorship like his counterparts in Turkey and Hungary, he has no power to shut down entire television or radio stations. His methods are much more sophisticated. His front men, poodles and mouthpieces do the dirty work for him. In exchange, they get (temporary) job security in a difficult, competitive market; they are assured the adulation of his base of supporters; they get mentions on the government’s official social media accounts. And if they behave really well, they may even be served a slice of cake by Sara Netanyahu herself – on condition that they fawn over her properly.
In the past month Channel 13 was cleansing its news department of independent thought. First the professional troublemakers were fired – the people whose views didn’t suit the government’s worldview. Journalists Nir Becher, Barak Ravid and Avi Amit were sent home. The studios were filled with people whose views Netanyahu found more comfortable: Sharon Gal, who strongly supported Elor Azaria – a soldier convicted of killing a Palestinian assailant who had already been subdued – received a daily show and a regular presence in the news studio, even though his expertise lies in neither news nor political analysis. Golan Yochpaz, who headed the old, independent news department, was replaced with Israel Twito, who is more convenient for Netanyahu. Reporters and editors quiver with fear or watch what is happening stoically, depending on the state of their mortgages. And the fate of the investigative program “Hamakor” is obviously shrouded in fog.
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Hallmarks of a democracy in crisis
Satire is the litmus test of a democracy’s health and democratic leaders may curse it, but quietly. In Israel it has always attacked the people in power, from the days of cult show “Nikui Rosh” from the 1970s to the very recent “The Jews Are Coming.” That is its only social function, its only contribution to expanding the boundaries of the political conversation. And it is part of the universal human experience: Man is the only animal that knows how to laugh at others – and at himself.
“Gav Ha’uma” did this well. It was biting, sharper than all the rest. That’s why it was previously kicked off what was then known as Reshet. After that, it moved to Channel 10, and later, after Channel 10’s owner merged with Channel 13’s parent company, the latter inherited the program.
“Gav Ha’uma” was Channel 10’s crown jewel. It was an island of total independence with a supreme commitment to making powerful forces – the government in general and the prime minister in particular – thoroughly ridiculous, as is standard in this genre.
It also had other recurrent motifs too. There was its constant war against “religionization”; it showcased the secular, even atheist, option at a time when the small screen was full of praise for the Jewish God on every reality show. There was Lior Schleien’s consistent mockery of the Ashkenazi hegemony and of himself as its representative. There was its insistence on the truth, as revealed in esoteric video clips and the interpretations of its generations of panelists, all of whom were wondrously talented, as were the writers and everyone else involved.
The show's host Lior Schleien and his regular panel members never fawned over anyone. It took increasing courage to say the things that were said on this program, and they demonstrated it admirably despite the proliferating and escalating attacks by the prime minister’s supporters, and the constant worry over the morrow. Indeed, until this year, “Gav Ha’uma’s” position on Channel 13 seemed more or less stable. Even as cutbacks were made, a contract was signed for 100 more episodes, slated to start immediately after the Jewish holidays this fall.
Schleien, who was not only one of “Gav HaUma”’s stars but also its producer, had an agreement in hand to create 100 new episodes. Each episode reportedly costs 300,000 shekels ($88,000). That isn’t a lot to create a show that everyone either loved or hated. The price reflected the costs of employing dozens of people, from writers to prop managers, from Schleien and his staff to researchers. Together, they labored to produce an exceptionally outstanding television show.
But as of Tuesday, it’s over. Even assuming the courts award Schleien significant compensation for the breach of contract, they have no power to bring “Gav Ha’uma” back to our screens, or to public life. The prime minister is rubbing his hands with glee.
Netanyahu’s success in burying an independent television station is the worst sign of a democracy in crisis. Regardless of whether you share my view that Schleien is a comic genius or hope he dies a bizarre death, as is standard practice among Netanyahu fans, you need to understand that Channel 13 has now become a branch of Netanyahu’s mouthpiece, Channel 20. And the only fig leaf covering its nakedness is the reality show “Survivor.”
When Channel 13 executives justified canceling Schleien’s contract on the pretext that the show’s ratings were lower than expected, they weren’t telling you the truth. This was preceded by a long campaign of harassment against the program that included changing time slots, miserly promos and a refusal to promote the program properly. All this left its mark on the ratings.
Moreover, even a proven ratings star like Nir Becher was kicked out. So it’s very hard to believe in the executives’ sincerity. And as the Knesset put it in Article 39 of the Contracts Law, “When carrying out an obligation arising from a contract, one must act in the accepted manner and in good faith.”
But the moment the prime minister sends his friend to buy a television station, good faith becomes a naïve hope. So don’t be naïve; understand this: “Gav Ha’uma” is us, the viewers. And now they’ve stuck a knife in our backs.