Taking Stock / Rescue Public Broadcasts: Close the Broadcasting Authority

If you fear for public norms, for culture, and for the freedom of the press, lend your voice to the call

June 2008, status report: Ehud Olmert doesn't like business class, some suspect. He likes first class, and if necessary, doesn't shy from an envelope stuffed with cash. That's the prime minister.

On one single day, three Israeli mayors were grilled over various criminal allegations. How normal in our parts, where mayors have a penchant for building developers and money. Moving onto the Knesset and cabinet, we can find dozens of people suspected of a slew of crimes and misdemeanors.

The popular press yellows by the day and reporters are shrugging at accepting gratuities from parties about which they write. It has become accepted practice at almost all the papers.

Commercial TV is awash in grotesque reality shows and competitions. A bunch of nondescripts with no pretensions of having any special skills or attractions squatted on an island and kept 30% of the population glued to their screens.

Now with all that said we can start our discussion about the face of society, of government, and the status of the Fourth Estate. The diagnosis, prognosis and treatment will no doubt be a subject of controversy and arouse rollicking public debate.

But perhaps there is one thing on which everybody can agree, from the general public to decision-makers: that Israel needs - more urgently than ever - a strong, independent public broadcaster, a quality public television and radio channel, an alternative - keen, critical and biting.

True, we have the Israel Broadcasting Authority, but unfortunately, it never was a true public broadcaster. First of all, throughout most of its existence it was the lapdog of government or of certain ministers, secondly because throughout most of its existence it was corrupt, rotten, slow and unprofessional. Thirdly, in the last decade as competition arose it has become pretty much irrelevant. Almost every reporter, editor or producer working for the IBA starts the conversation with interviewees with an apology for the venue.

Yet sometimes, when hearing one of the quality radio shows it still airs, or watching an isolated island of culture, sanity and independence on TV, one suddenly grasps how great is the absence.

In the era of big money, with Big Business controlling the economy, with reporters wilting before authority and the institutions comprising democracy becoming defiled - public broadcasting could have made a huge contribution. In today's mounting flood of tongue-tied, would-be, dilettantish "talents," relevant, alluring and professional public broadcasting would convey a rare opportunity.

Israel needs a strong, hard-hitting public broadcasting system. The challenge is to make "quality" also "popular." One doesn't need to achieve a 30% rating like the reality shows - half or a third of that would create an influential cultural alternative in Israel's crowded media scene.

And there is a one-time, fleeting opportunity to create independent, good public broadcasting in Israel.

No, it isn't to reform the Israel Broadcasting Authority (Channel 1 television and Israel Radio). On the contrary. Its gigantic deficits have created the opportunity to abolish that rotten institution once and for all and replace it with a whole new animal.

With what? With a public broadcasting system completely dissociated from politicians; public broadcasting created by professionals whose sole desire is to win; public broadcasting clean of corrupt committees; public broadcasting fueled by excellence, not seniority or connections.

Moshe Gavish, the man appointed to heal the IBA, told TheMarker last week, "I'm not sure we have the right to exist." He's right and he's wrong.

He's wrong because Israel needs public broadcasting more than ever. But he's right that the IBA, as is, has no right to exist. Worse, its existence ensures that Israel will not have a true public broadcaster.

The crisis at the IBA has created an opportunity. Now all that's needed is a coalition of public personalities, ministers and Knesset members to tear it down and fire all its employees. Give them inflated severance pay, let them leave with dignity, give them what it takes to close down, and start afresh. The professionals who want to work can get jobs with the new entity.

The broadcasting authority's very DNA is defective. Its organizational culture is rotten, and all its managers admit as much behind closed doors, and open ones too. It can't be reinvented, it can't be reformed. Make it go away, and start again.

And if you are afraid for the future of public broadcasting in Israel, if you fear for culture here and for the freedom of the press, if you despair at the spread of corruption in government - you should lend your voice to this call and cry out for the end of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.