Taking Stock / Fact: It's Nochi's Company

The whole story would have probably ended the usual way - with a few commentators making faces, far from the public eye. But after all the promos and the media interviews in which Ilana Dayan, anchor of the television program "Fact," boasted about the investigation into screw-ups and cover-ups at Israir, the chances of closing the affair behind closed doors evaporated.

It happens all the time. The press or a TV show prepares an unflattering report, they get threats from lawyers and the subject of the investigation, and then they have to decide. Report the story, pare it down, or kill it.

The Fact team had a superb journalistic coup: impaired safety procedures at Israir and an attempt to cover up the story. That is exactly the sort of story that investigative journalism should be handling.

But on Thursday morning last week, it transpired that the much-ballyhooed show would not be aired, at least not now. Keshet chief executive Avi Nir announced that the show would be postponed until a winner is declared in Israir's dogfight with El Al about flights to New York (which El Al operates, and which Israir wants to operate, but which El Al does not want Israir to operate).

Bad timing or sublime timing?

Indeed, Keshet's comment was one for the books: "Pursuant to the recommendation of the company's legal counsels, CEO Avi Nir decided to postpone the broadcast, to eliminate any claim about any ostensible involvement by Keshet in the decision about allowing Israir to provide a regular line to New York."

Strange, that, since if the information in the investigation was accurate, verified and cross-referenced, and if it passed all the journalistic tests, the story's timing would not detract from it at all.

If Israir had sued Keshet, then the Fact people would have walked into court, stood tall, proved that they told the truth, presented the evidence, and Israir would have had no case.

The claim about timing is highly dubious. If Fact had solid, thoroughly checked information, there was no reason not to deliver it to the public ahead of any decision on a New York line. Some might claim that if anything, the timing was sublime.

Secondly, the decision about whether or not to allow a second Israeli airline to provide a regular New York route should be based solely and only on the best competitive structure for the Israeli aviation market. Safety issues are one thing, and competition is another. They should not be mixed together.

Who owns the company?

So why was the show postponed? It could be that the lawyers were worried that it would not pass if tested in court. Or it could be that the Fact people had chosen to focus their attention on a company belonging to Nochi Dankner.

Throughout the program's many years, like all journalists who deal with investigative material, the Fact people have received dozens of threats from lawyers. They have stood firm before immense pressures. Nasty letters and pressure come with the territory.

But this time, the letter arrived from a company controlled by Nochi Dankner, the superstar of the business sector and the darling of the business press.

Does Dankner own shares in Channel 2, which is the network that shows Fact? Believe it or not - after all, he has holdings in every sector in Israel - but he owns not one single share in Channel 2, directly or indirectly.

Do any of Dankner's long arms touch any of the directors of Channel 2? They do not. Haim Saban, one of the shareholders at Keshet, is if anything Dankner's rival.

No. Nochi Dankner does not need any shares in Channel 2, nor does he need to intervene in the matter or apply pressure for the Keshet management to take his letters very seriously. Dankner's clout in the Israeli marketplace is far, far greater than that of any of the Keshet shareholders.

Add up their ad budgets

For instance, take Cellcom, Clal Insurance, NetVision, Barak, Ilanot-Batucha, Hogla-Kimberley, Supersol and Clubmarket. Add up their advertising budgets and you get 5 percent of the entire Israeli outlay on advertising. Now you understand that Nochi Dankner does not need to own any shares in Channel 2 for his letters to be taken very seriously.

It is not only a matter of the ads that he could theoretically throw Keshet's way, or withdraw. Everybody in Israel's business scene would do better to be on Dankner's good side. Jobs, budgets, transactions - he can give and he can take away.

A few months ago, the press reported that the Nimrodis were thinking of selling Maariv to Dankner. Nothing came of that, but a week ago, Dankner's IDB group announced it had bought an interest (greater than 4.99 percent) in the Israel Land Development Corporation, which is Maariv's parent company.

Ostensibly, controlling Maariv, which publishes the daily paper Maariv, would have leveraged Dankner's power even more. But Dankner, a master at public relations who has tamed many a journalist over the years, knows that with his interests in some of Israel's biggest companies, he does not really need to control Maariv - or any paper, for that matter. On the contrary: Without direct holdings in any papers, he can obtain far better results.

What this story is not about

This is not a story about Keshet or Nochi Dankner. This is a story about the relations between the media and the rich in Israel.

Groveling before the biggest advertisers and the powers that be is embedded in the media's DNA, by and large. Nor does change seem likely.

A while ago, one of the reporters of one of the biggest investigative TV shows in the land contacted Haaretz, asking for information on relations between the banks and the biggest borrowers.

The reporter mentioned the Peled-Givony scandal, the air conditioners merger that went broke and that sort of thing. Excellent stories, we said, but we have much bigger names, much more interesting, much bigger.

"We aren't touching those," he said on the spot. "We don't want trouble. We have no interest in tackling the big advertisers or shareholders. And anyway, our lawyers would bury the story."