It’s 8 p.m., and the main news broadcast on Israel’s brand new public broadcaster dives into a report uncovering massive financial irregularities by the prime minister — incidentally, the person who just pushed through a budget financing the station for another two years. Or perhaps the broadcast opens with a fawning report on the prime minister’s visit to an orphanage that receives as much state funding as the channel.
Both are hypothetical scenarios, but only one is likely to happen as a result of an agreement that would see the government assert more control over a new public broadcaster.
Yet the degree of government meddling in the nascent news channel remains to be seen, with the political maneuvering surrounding the affair, and the backlash to it, underscoring an enduring ambiguity that spawns many of Israel’s partisan brawls: Does public funding come with any strings attached? Should it?
Often, it seems that were Israel to clarify in any definitive way the nature of the connection between art, culture, media, and organizational activities and the public funding they rely on, many of the heated public controversies would simply disappear.
Every time a Palestinian rapper who compared Israelis to Nazis appears at a publicly funded cinema awards ceremony, or, at the other end of the right-left spectrum, a rabbi at a state-funded pre-army academy makes disparaging remarks about women, the arguments from both sides of the aisle are the same: “Why should the state pay for something that is undermining its existence or core values?” the critics ask. “How can the government impinge on freedom of speech (the money, after all, belongs to the public)?” others retort forcefully.
Right and left predictably brandish the freedom of speech card as their political rivals seek to muzzle and withdraw funding aligned with their various causes or lauded figures. Both sides will use the word “incitement” repeatedly.
Like the fog around Israel’s elusive nuclear program, the ambiguity in the relationship between public funding and ideology may be beneficial, giving cover to the government to accommodate all of Israel’s deeply divided social groups. But the muddled status quo is also a breeding ground for partisan resentment and cynicism over the government’s perceived involvement — since the degree of involvement is never clear.
The public broadcaster saga currently simmering is no different, with the ambiguity surrounding how much control the government can wield over its editorial decisions nearly causing the ruling coalition to fall. What is different is that while in the past the government has been rebuffed when it tried to exert control in exchange for funding, the case of the new broadcaster may mark a shift in the other direction.
The complicated affair began with Likud-led reforms — backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — that legislated the shuttering of the Israel Broadcasting Authority in favor of a new, editorially independent broadcaster. But for about a year now, Netanyahu has been seeking to nip the as-yet-unlaunched new entity in the bud and instead “rehabilitate” the IBA, in an about-face that by most accounts stems from the prime minister’s fears of the new body’s independence and perceived left-wing bias.
Late March saw Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, a supporter of the original reform, cut a convoluted deal that would see the new entity begin broadcasting with a slight delay, while gutting its news department and laying off most of its professional hires. Their roles would be filled by workers of the soon-to-be-disbanded Israel Broadcasting Authority.
But remove the ambiguity, and the dispute goes away with it.
Consider what would happen if the public broadcaster had been built under the consensus that political meddling is a no-no despite the state’s bankrolling of the project, as outlined in the original reforms advanced by the Likud party in 2014.
A bastion of Israeli journalism would be created without the financial concerns plaguing other outlets, without the cronyism and political corruption of the IBA. It would be a news outlet free of political influence, free to criticize or compliment, free of partisan alliances.
Or consider if the public broadcaster was drawn up under a policy that says government funding equals government control; more Pravda, less BBC — but openly.
A bona fide mouthpiece would be born, staffed by bleary-eyed has-beens, propagandists and not-quite journalists, churning out government-approved news for the masses. While obviously far from ideal for the Israeli public, and admittedly not nearly as effective for nefarious political purposes as a mouthpiece that looks like a legitimate news source, the issue would not be roiling the country, and hundreds would not be uncertain of their futures as salaried employees.
Miri Regev’s losing culture war
That’s clearly the outcome favored by Culture Minister Miri Regev, who memorably said, “What’s the point of this corporation if we don’t control it?”
While Regev’s outburst on controlling the broadcaster during a July 2016 cabinet meeting has been repeated ad nauseum, the response of her colleague, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who was behind the 2014 reforms of the broadcaster, is no less significant.
“You have control over plays at Habima [theater] or any theater that gets state money?!” he shot back at Regev angrily and rhetorically after she demanded the government exercise control over the broadcaster.
Indeed, not for lack of trying, but Regev has thus far failed in all of her efforts to condition cultural funding on “loyalty.”
Her attempts to draft a bill to transfer powers from the treasury to defund artists deemed “disloyal” was blocked by Kahlon last year, who rejected outright the suggestion he would give up the Finance Ministry’s ability to veto or grant funding, even if it’s never used.
While noting that the three-person treasury committee to make these determinations is entirely inactive, and he intends to keep it that way, Kahlon in March 2016 declared: “No one will take away this authority – whether to give money, or to take it away.”
Moreover, despite Israel’s having enacted in 2011 the Nakba Day Law, which permits the Finance Ministry to withdraw funding from institutions that mark Israel’s independence as a Palestinian “catastrophe,” both Regev and her predecessor Limor Livnat backed down in their attempts to pull funding from the International Film Festival on Nakba and Return, hosted by the Tel Aviv Cinemateque.
Regev in October similarly failed to prevent a Palestinian rapper whose song lyrics have compared Israel to the Nazis and rapists from performing at a publicly funded Haifa event.
In June, she sent out questionnaires to theaters on their willingness to perform in West Bank settlements, raising the possibility of funding cuts for those who refuse, though no such cuts appear to have ever been introduced. Her recent scrutiny of film funds similarly raised hackles, though some of those very same funds indicated the financial transparency demands were nothing new.
Even Regev’s ostensible victory in freezing funding for Haifa’s Al-Midan theater, which hosted a play based on the life of a terrorist convicted for the 1984 murder of an IDF soldier, was far from a smooth ride, with the former attorney general ruling against her and the parties reaching a deal to resume payments in March 2016. (Recently, the theater, however, has said the ministry has been withholding payments).
Finally, when the Jerusalem municipality in February said it was evicting an independent art gallery, a day after Regev pressured the mayor not to allow a controversial left-wing organization to lecture there, the city insisted the issue was unrelated to politics and was merely about enforcing local planning regulations.
The obstacles faced by Regev are one example of freedom of speech largely prevailing against calls to defund projects and institutions over their political views (the process of approving state funding from the get-go and the eligibility criteria remain shadowy and unclear, however).
From the other side of the political aisle, another recent legal ruling against the pulling of state funding over ideological views came just last week when the attorney general ruled Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman lacks the authority either to summon a rabbi for a dressing-down over derogatory comments he made about female soldiers or to withdraw state funding from his yeshiva if he doesn’t resign.
“Many of those who strongly criticized the legal opinion to protect freedom of speech in the context of cultural creations, preventing the political involvement in cultural content, applauded the legal opinion — which under the same reasoning of freedom of speech — prevented a reckoning with Rabbi Yigal Levinstein’s hurtful remarks,” said Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber this week. “The policy was consistent and sought to prevent intervention on controversial texts — both in the context of culture and Levinstein.”
The examples, and possibilities, are rampant: A mini-scandal broke out late last year when it was discovered the Jerusalem municipality funded an ultra-Orthodox rally against academic studies, but the issue died down without any change taking place. And what if it were an anti-draft or anti-gay or anti-assimilation event? Should Israeli cities host “Nakba” events or groups such as Breaking the Silence, which are accused of undermining the IDF?
These are issues that Israelis get angry about on a case-by-case basis, governed by their individual political beliefs, but largely fail to consider on a larger scale: that is, where, if at all, should the government draw the line?
Underlining this disparity, a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute think tank in early April found that 61 percent of the Israeli public disagrees with the statement that “the government is entitled to be involved in the contents and in the appointments of the public broadcasting systems if it finances them.” (33.8% strongly or moderately agreed.)
A 2015 survey by the think tank found that 52% of the Israeli public backed Regev, agreeing that she “is entitled to deny funding for artistic works whose contents do not appear to her to accord with the interests of the state.”
The broadcaster, and the NGO bill
Meanwhile, two recent cases show that things are starting to change, and the shifts appear to be embedded in legislation rather than brash rhetoric.
The first is the NGO transparency bill, which forces groups that receive funding from foreign governments to be more open about where their money comes from. Between the lines, the bill speaks to an ideological belief that by receiving money from a foreign government, they must inextricably linked with whoever is holding the purse strings in some strange capital, making the NGOs little more than agents of those countries, whether they actually are or not.
Regardless of whether one believes these left-wing human rights groups targeted by the law are out to destroy the State of Israel or save it, the entrenchment of the notion that there is an intrinsic connection between a public purse and being in a government’s pocket is a paradigm shift that bleeds — whether intentionally or not — into the issue of Israeli public funding.
Which brings us to the public broadcaster, which will seemingly enjoy a much smaller degree of independence than reformers had hoped for, though it will still have the trappings of a news outfit and some semblance of independence. Iran’s Press TV, it won’t be.
Whether one believes that pouring billions into a public broadcaster is an essential hallmark of democracy or a ludicrous waste of public funds, the two-year saga should give all Israelis — most of whom are likely bored to tears by the issue — pause.
Because although the status quo on public funding appears tilted toward freedom of speech and the state’s legal actors poised to valiantly protect the recipients, the ambiguous nature of this relationship also makes those benefiting from these funds vulnerable to the whims of politicians, whoever they may be.
In the battle over what kind of editorial line the channel will maintain, the winner will likely be the one writing the checks and controlling the hiring process. Today, that person is Netanyahu, but tomorrow it may be somebody else.