The deal signed Wednesday to merge Channel 12 operator Reshet with Channel 10 could heighten political influence on the media. The list of shareholders in Israel’s commercial broadcasters comprises, not coincidentally, wealthy individuals with various financial interests in the Israeli economy. They own companies in the areas of infrastructure, energy, food, shipping, banking and finance — as well as an important commercial TV station. They include David Wertheim and Yitzhak Tshuva (Keshet); Idan Ofer, Udi Angel and Michael Strauss (Reshet); Len Blavatnik (Channel 10) and Yitzhak Mirilashvili (Channel 20).
Media holdings were once profitable. In the last decade, given shrinking advertising revenue and other challenges, shareholders have been forced to inject hundreds of millions of shekels into the broadcasting companies. This anomalous situation created many distortions in the media market, an overdependence on tycoons and attempts to influence public opinion in favor of improper interests. Some of these developments are being examined as part of the investigations of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Despite all this, Channel 10 News has succeeded, after many struggles over the years, to act independently and be a critical and confrontational media outlet. The merger and the transfer of the company to the control of Angel, Ofer and Strauss make it more likely that inappropriate interests will attempt to exert influence.
The media market has undergone many changes in recent years and there is a wide variety of information sources. At the same time, the business model that combines income from media consumers and advertising revenue is faltering, mainly because of the growing share of advertising going to the internet giants. Therefore, there seems to be no choice but to allow the merger to go forward so the television market can operate more rationally.
However, when the Israel Antitrust Authority and the Second Television and Radio Authority evaluate the merger, they must set clear rules that will guarantee the independence of the Channel 10 News Company, and will, to the extent possible, block the influence of the network’s wealthy owners.
These rules should also not allow regulators to interfere with the content of the channel. The law today gives politicians too much influence on media regulation, including through direct appointments of officials and the control of budgets. The solution must be free of excessive involvement of public officials. The Channel 10 News journalists should be given tools that will enable them to combat any attempt at improper influence and to maintain the journalistic independence of the news operation.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.