In the lines below, Hanoch Marmari, former editor of Haaretz and current editor of The Seventh Eye, an independent on-line journal dedicated to critique of the media, defends Israel Hayom's right to exist as a free newspaper, notwithstanding his professional qualms about the quality of its journalism.
Published in: The Seventh Eye (Hebrew)
1. Because MKs who want to "follow their conscience” will have to disqualify themselves from voting.
Since the Ministerial Committee on Legislation gave Knesset members from the coalition freedom to vote as they wish in the preliminary reading of the proposed "Bill for the Promotion and Protection of the Written Press in Israel," popularly known as the “Israel Hayom Law,” the Knesset members will "vote their conscience.” That is, the MKs and their consciences will wrestle with the question of who they prefer to start up with: Yedioth Ahronoth or Israel Hayom.
If the Knesset members were judges, they would be obligated to recuse themselves from voting. This ugly battle between Israel's two tabloids has given the legislators the opportunity to appreciate what they stand to benefit and what they stand to lose if they do not act in accordance with the expectations of the rival camps. A Knesset member who raises his or her hand in support of the proposed bill will be rewarded with an abundance of positive media coverage by side A and a barrage of curses and negative coverage by side B. Which side, then, should he or she bet on?
The “Israel HaYom Law” is one of those rare instances in which a Knesset member’s vote for or against a law can trigger an immediate, and even long-term, reaction from the two sparring sides: he or she will receive a personal reward from one and personal retribution from the other. The MK’s dilemma when voting is to decide which reward is preferable and which retribution should be avoided. Not only do the MKs who vote put themselves at risk, but those who abstain and are absent do as well. Each of the contesting sides will remember not only who actively opposed it but also those who stood idly by. There is no need to go into detail about the potential impact that a decision by either of the two most popular newspapers in Israel to boycott or to wage an all-out, open-ended war against MKs who defy it would have. Such a response could impact—for good or for bad—on the continued tenure of the MKs.
2. Because lobbyists are likely to close a “deal” on this issue, over the heads of the public and to its detriment.
The difficult personal dilemma faced by the MKs explains their search for a solution outside the Knesset plenum. The fateful week of the vote opened with reports of possible deals, according to which the bill would be frozen. The proposed bill—and the possibility of advancing it or freezing it—has thus transformed the printed newspaper market into negotiable currency.
On October 29, 2014, ahead of the vote on the bill in the ministerial committee, columnist Zvi Zrahiya reported in The Marker, one of Israel's economic newspapers, that there was a crisis between the Likud and Yesh Atid parties; according to this report, senior Likud members were threatening not to enact Yesh Atid's law that would eliminate VAT on apartments if Yesh Atid supported the "Israel Hayom Law.” On November 9, 2014, Zrahiya and The Marker’s Nati Toker reported on “The Great Media Deal" that was in the works, claiming that television would be entrusted to Arnon (Noni) Mozes, publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, while a newspaper would be entrusted to Sheldon Adelson, publisher of Israel Hayom. According to their report, the possibility of repealing the law prohibiting simultaneous ownership of printed media and a commercial television station was being examined, which would enable Mozes to return to the television market and Adelson to hold onto his free daily newspaper.
Even if these deals do not come to fruition (after all, the reporters deemed them “premature step”), they are indicative of the motives of legislation in general and the motivation for enacting laws regulating journalism in particular: What comes first is the good of the legislators. Then comes the welfare of the sparring sides. And what about the welfare of the public? Well, even if the voters are media consumers, it cannot be assumed that they will change the way they vote because of a press regulation law of one kind or another.
3. Because the “Israel Hayom Law” is contrary to the public’s best interests and is about the best interests of Yedioth Ahronoth.
What's in the best interests of the public is to have a diverse and vibrant press. Four newspapers with “widespread circulation” are better than three, and five are better still. At least in the early days of Israel Hayom, when the print industry was already plagued by crisis, the newspaper contributed significantly to increasing the number of newspaper readers and reached groups and individuals who had never read a daily newspaper before, via people distributing copies at congested intersections and security guards at the entrances of office building. It was not a great newspaper, but a newspaper nonetheless.
For the seventh year running, Israel Hayom is providing work for hundreds of journalists and newspaper employees. For Ha’aretz, which printed Israel Hayom’s entire circulation for over five years, Israel Hayom provided oxygen in the form of cash flow. It has significantly contributed to raising media literacy in a population for whom subscribing to a newspaper was a very low priority. It even contributed to bringing Israel's Arab public closer to the Israeli mainstream: although the paper’s editorial staff does not take readers in that sector into account, not even in its public opinion polls, Israel Hayom has increased the exposure of Arab reader to Hebrew journalism. And, most important, by its very existence, Israel Hayom has broken the absolute hegemony of Yedioth Ahronoth, “the country’s number-one newspaper.” It’s good that it exists, if only to avoid Israel becoming a one-newspaper state.
4. Because MK Cabel does not differentiate between journalistic criticism in the name of democracy and restricting a newspaper in the name of democracy.
MK Eitan Cabel has been distributing investigative articles and critiques of Israel Hayom's behavior in advertising market that have been published in "The Seventh Eye,” IDI's on-line Hebrew journal of media criticism, in support of his proposed bill in the Knesset—a bill that would limit or shrink Israel Hayom, to the delight of its rivals and enemies. Given that, it is only fitting that a fair-minded person like MK Cabel would also distribute the articles and critiques from “The Seventh Eye” that categorically reject his proposed legislation.
“The Seventh Eye” has been closely following Israel Hayom since the day of its birth. Israel Hayom has been mentioned and criticized thousands of times in "The Seventh Eye," where it has been the subject of hundreds of items and reports, and a comparable number of columns and feature articles. “The Seventh Eye” has chastised the newspaper for its mediocrity, dullness, aggression toward other voices. It has criticized Israel Hayom's lack of journalistic spark, its dearth of intellectual ferment, its lack of pizazz, and the absence of any inkling of irony, not to mention self-irony. It has similarly chided the paper for the trivial texts it presents, either with excessive generosity or excessive downplaying and concealment, in accordance with its biased, monolithic mandate.
From the "Seventh" Eye exposés that Eitan Cabel cited on the manner in which the newspaper conducts its business, it is possible to see that Israel Hayom lacks an income-based model, whether for distribution or for advertising space. It is clear that the paper rests, with all its weight, on the inexhaustible fortune of its owner Sheldon Adelson, and it is clear that Adelson is fully-focused on his objective as the paper's owner: Even those who have never held the paper in their hands are well aware of the fact that it is known as a "Bibiton"—a term combining Benjamin Netanyahu's nickname and the Hebrew word for newspaper.
Israel Hayom is far from a champion of the free press. It whitewashes reality that it finds problematic and touches up reality in accordance with its needs and those of its patron. Like a perpetrator crying victim, it has developed a bullying and whining style. And despite this, it has its own unique voice that is not similar to other voices, and this voice deserves to be heard.
If Eitan Cabel wants to use what’s written in “The Seventh Eye” to support his argument, he will have to fight to close all newspapers. No offense intended, but Yedioth Ahronoth has received much sharper criticism from "The Seventh Eye" than Israel Hayom has, both in intensity and quantity. This is because it still plays a more important role than Israel Hayom in shaping the face of society.
There is no newspaper in Israel that does not complain that “The Seventh Eye” comes down too hard on it. But MK Cabel does not distinguish between criticism, which is the profession of the "Seventh Eye" staff, and this targeted killing of a newspaper, in which he is a partner, if not the leader. It is possible that Cabel is simply a benevolent soul, and in his holy innocence, he has entered the journalistic Temple Mount with his shoes still on his feet, thus setting off a dangerous cycle of destruction whose results cannot be anticipated.
5. Because a law that puts restrictions on the printed press at the height of the digital revolution is anachronistic and wicked.
Following is an excerpt from a Mandatory Press Ordinance that was enacted in 1933 and has yet to be cancelled:
"No newspaper in Israel may be printed or published without its owners, the newspaper, and the publishing house having (separately) received a government license issued by the Interior Ministry. In order to obtain the license, the newspaper editor must be at least 25 years of age, with no criminal background, must possess a recognized matriculation certificate, and must have the ability to speak, read, and write in the language in which the newspaper is published. […] The editor must inform the Interior Ministry of his travels beyond the borders of Israel. When the editor is replaced, the new editor must receive personal authorization from the Interior Ministry."
Despite the regulations of the British Mandate, which saw the daily newspaper as a weapon in the hands of the indigenous population under the Empire's control and believed that newspapers must be carefully watched lest they incite their readership or arouse opposition to the regime, and despite the expectations of Israel's governments, ever since the founding of the state, that the press would promote the national agenda, the written press in Israel has enjoyed great freedom. In practice, with the exception of military censorship, the written press was not subject to governmental regulation (this was in contrast to Israel's broadcast authorities, which are controlled by government ministries). And today, at this late stage, when the Israeli press is an organized and established entity, the legislator—the man with the smart phone, the social media maven—is seeking to control the last remaining stronghold of the press and lock it in a cage of regulation.
And here are some excerpts from the “Bill for the Promotion and Protection of the Written Press in Israel 2014” currently being considered by the Knesset:
"“Daily newspaper" – As defined in the Mandatory Ordinance (1933) a "daily newspaper" is published at least six days a week and includes at least 30 pages on weekdays and 100 pages on weekends and holiday eves."
"“Widely circulated daily newspaper" – A daily newspaper that is one of four daily newspapers with the widest circulation, which is intended for the general public and for all parts of the country."
"An individual shall not publish or be responsible for the distribution of a free widely circulated daily newspaper for a period of more than six months from the start of its free distribution."
"The antitrust commissioner may change the number of pages in the definition of a "widely circulated daily newspaper" once in three years, with the authorization of the Knesset’s Finance Committee."
6. Because this is a tailor-made bill, designed to take out a specific target.
For those who may have forgotten, this is the third round of legislation targeting Israel Hayom. The first round was at the end of 2009, when readership polls indicated that Israel Hayom, then in its third year as a free newspaper, began to be a threat to Yedioth Ahronoth. MK Yoel Hasson (Kadima) submitted a bill that stipulated that at least 51 percent of an Israeli newspaper’s ownership must be in the hands of Israelis residing in Israel. Two members of his faction, the late Marina Solodkin and MK Robert Ilatov, proposed further limiting foreign ownership to just 40 percent. No publisher’s interests would have been affected by this law other than Sheldon Adelson’s.
Along with Ilatov, MK Eitan Cabel, the sponsor of the current bill, was already involved in this legislation, and joined members of the Labor and Likud parties in supporting the bill. At the time, MK Hasson presented the pure motives for promoting the proposal as follows:
“The aim of the proposed bill is to bring order to the world of Israeli journalism and to change the situation in which someone who is not a resident of Israel and whose life is not centered in Israel can, by means of his wealth, own a newspaper and make use of it as a kind of megaphone to represent his clear interests, and all this when most of its readers do not always know or understand the publisher’s underlying interests.”
In May 2010, MK Solodkin’s proposed bill was brought before the Ministerial Committee on Legislation. Her proposal was to “limit the distribution of free newspapers in Israel,” a kind of prototype of the present bill. At the time, Yedioth Ahronoth reported that “Netanyahu is sending his bureau chief to Rabbi Ovadia to kill the bill against free newspapers.” “Kill” was the word used.
7. Because for every example brought from the international press, an example of the opposite can be found.
In October 2003, the Germans invaded Poland. The German media giant, the Axel Springer Corporation, founded a new newspaper distributed across Poland. Published in Polish, this paper was national in scope and local in its editions. Its name: “Fakt,” or “fact.” The relationship between that newspaper and facts is similar to the relationship between the publisher’s successful German tabloid Bild and facts.
The Springer network set a flat fee for all editions of Fakt throughout Poland—one zloty, which was about equivalent to one shekel during those years. Fakt was sold at a third of the cost of widely circulated, respectable print papers such as Gazeta Wyborcza, founded by the leaders of the Solidarity movement, and Rzeczpospolita, a public newspaper from the days of the old regime that appeared under new ownership and with a new identity. A glittering tabloid, Fakt was an instant hit across Poland and became an existential threat to the local and national market forces.
The newspaper was yellow, crude, colorful, scandalous, gossipy, and semi-pornographic, but nonetheless had a kind of liberal political identity. The Polish Journalists Association awarded Fakt its “Hyena of the Year" award for 2004–2005 for its disregard of ethical rules and for publishing lies and invented material.
Fakt was poised, first and foremost, to steal the market share of the reigning Polish tabloid Super Express. As a result, the publisher of Super Express sued it for its predatory pricing (selling the newspaper at a price lower than its production cost). After the lawsuit was rejected, the company reduced the price of Super Express to match that of Fakt: one zloty. With a circulation that reached 670,000 at its height, Super Express's circulation today is estimated at 370,000, compared to Fakt’s 500,000. Over the years, after successfully penetrating the market, Fakt raised its price to 1.80 zloty per copy, not including supplements. A tabloid launched by the Agora group, the publishers of Gazeta Wyborcza, failed and closed.
8. Because its free distribution is not the problem; rather, it's the predatory price of its advertising space.
The low price of advertising in Israel Hayom (as revealed in exposés in "The Seventh Eye") warrants investigation by the Israeli Antitrust Authority. Free distribution, at the very least, serves the public and increases the effectiveness of advertising space. If this is true, why not charge a realistic price for the advertisements sold? As a rule, market failures warrant inquiry by the Antitrust Authority, not by the legislature.
If the antitrust commissioner, in an effort to save the market from failure, were to force Israel Hayom to charge the minimum market price for advertising rather than undercutting that price, it would be reasonable. The paper would be able to meet this demand without damaging its editorial content and its distribution system and without undermining its foundations. Such a decision would not harm its existing infrastructure, its employees, or its readers.
9. Because restricting a newspaper’s activity to the point of killing it is not an innocent mistake, but a conspiracy.
If the question is what would weaken Israel Hayom’s in the arena of the press, there is but one answer: The strengthening of Yedioth Ahronoth.
Although Israel Hayom limits the extent of Yedioth Ahronoth’s growth, as a newspaper it offers no tidings as far as journalistic content is concerned and it has less influence than the hoopla surrounding it would suggest. This is a newspaper that serves its sponsor, Sheldon Adelson, in the service of the Prime Minister he supports. As such, its staff is no different from the reporting staff of Yedioth Ahronoth, which provides services to its publisher, Arnon (Noni) Mozes, and his associates.
And yet, there is a difference: While Israel Hayom is blatantly transparent about its public and political agenda, Yedioth Ahronoth is run like a secret kingdom. Its readers are not aware of the labyrinth of special interests hiding behind the paper's flow of information and opinions. Although Yedioth lost some of its market share, it has not lost its status as “the country’s number-one paper.” It is an old and venerable paper, professional and focused, an integral part of Israeli life, and to a great extent, it creates awareness. Its influence is enormous, not only on its readers, but also on the business sector and in the halls of government. Continuing to rein Yedioth in, due to the presence of another strong player, enables additional voices to be heard.
10. Because in a place where a law against one newspaper is enacted, a law against another newspaper will be enacted as well.
This article was originally published in Hebrew on The Seventh Eye's website on November 11, 2014.