Karhi’s Broadcast Legislation – Reform or Ruination?

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The broadcast system in Israel certainly needs to be reformed in various ways, but Communications Minister Karhi's proposals all include a political twist that transform reform into ruination.

Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

The proposal, recently submitted by Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi for regulation of the television market was accompanied by another one of the pompous statements he has been making regularly since he took office. These can be classified into two categories. The first is his false  criticism that there is no pluralism in the media—at a time when  Israel Today’s circulation matches that of Yedioth Ahronoth; when, ratings-wise, Channel 14 news runs neck and neck with Channels 11 and 13; when the current events  programs on the public broadcast network are hosted by individuals with an openly rightwing perspective; and when rightwing commentators and the “war of the elites” are prominent on all channels. The ongoing shameless dissemination of claims about “the exclusion of an entire sector,” discrimination, and the stifling of certain opinions testify to the true intention here: amassing more and more political power over institutions that are charged with overseeing the government. The second category is the pseudo-democratic assertion that, “who needs four external directors on the News Corporation? The public’s asserts its position with its remote control.” How convenient. We don’t need gatekeepers or the standard of reasonableness, because we can rely on “the people”; and we don’t need corporate governance for the news broadcasters that maintains a separation between politics, money and journalism, because the public has a remote.

But this is where Karhi’s cognitive dissonance is most conspicuous. He isn’t really interested in competition and doesn’t really mean that people should vote with their remote. Here are several examples: On the one hand, Karhi announces a reduction in regulation, while at the same time he pushes micro-management of the multichannel platforms and wants to mandate them to use only a minister approved remote. He doesn’t want equal competition via the remote, but rather, to use the remote to promote channels that support him.

On the one hand, he announces that there will no longer be interference with news content, but in the same breath--that he will eliminate the status of news corporations as separate from the television channels. The news corporations are the buffers between the tycoons who control the channels and the news they broadcast. Eliminating them would make it possible for politicians to control the news broadcasts in a simpler and more direct way—via the owners. It’s no secret that in recent years some of the owners of Israeli media outlets attempted to monopolize the journalism market and to subordinate news coverage to politicians’ demands.

On the one hand, Karhi says that there should no longer be any supervision of commercial advertising, and on the other, wants to bar it on the public stations (Reshet Bet and IDF Radio) and to free up the advertising budgets for the dopamine-saturated programs of the regional radio stations, which would now become national. (And don’t forget that without oversight of TV advertising, the well-endowed homophobic campaign by Levinstein and his sort, now running on Twitter, would show up on television too. (Enjoy it!)

On the one hand, Karhi promises to set up a new ratings committee, which, he says, “will be based on an objective sample of the population, and not on interested parties.” On the other hand, he fails to explain how it will be financed, which leads me to assume that he wants it to be another government agency. There is no doubt that the ratings methodology needs to be revised; but should we expect another farce next year similar to the attempt to name the Prime Minister’s right-hand man, Director of the Central Bureau of Statistics in order to ensure that the data is “objective”?

On the one hand, he talks about the importance of allowing maximum room for market forces, while on the other hand he wants to revive and reinvigorate the unsuccessful state operated digital terrestrial television IDAN+ project. To this we can add his proposal last week to permit Channel 14 to broadcast via IDAN+ without paying off its back debts. Free competition, eh?

And of course, he announces the dissolution of the current regulatory bodies, but on the other hand, wises to set up a new and political regulator. For 25 years, there has been talk about the need to shut down the Second Television and Radio Authority and the Cable and Satellite Broadcast Council and replace them with a single independent body. But everyone who has worked on this has understood that it must be completely insulated from the political echelon. Why? Because when politicians regulate the media, they are ipso facto in a conflict of interest. Or perhaps this standard, too, has been repealed? I’m not sure. What is certain is that as part of the Government’s exclusion even the promise made to the OECD to set up an independent media regulator, as a condition for joining that organization, has now been tossed overboard. Elimination of the regulatory agencies means a reduction in regulation—so says the minister. But we must always remember that anyone who proceeds to set up a new regulator, whose members are all political appointees, isn’t interested in less regulation. He merely wants it to be controlled politically. We didn’t hear a single word from him about the new agency’s professional or fiscal independence. In short, Government ministers would become the direct regulator of the media. A free market, didn’t we say?

The truth is that there is nothing new in much of the proposal Karhi just released. It isn’t his proposal at all, but ideas based on the serious work done under the previous Communications Minister, Yoaz Hendel. The ban on cross-ownership (those with a controlling interest in a print outlet and news site cannot control a television channel—incidentally, contrary to Karhi’s earlier statements); allowing HOT to carry advertising; mandating the sale of and access to sports broadcasts; and extending the requirement for original Israeli productions to international actors—all this is familiar territory.

But just as the legislation to repeal the standard of reasonableness was ostensibly based on “Justice Solberg’s plan” or “Prof. Yoav Dotan’s proposal,” so does Karhi’s draft bill draw on the document prepared during Hendel’s tenure. There are some areas that certainly need to be dealt with. Somehow, though, in an underhanded way, they have all been given a political twist that turns reform into ruination.