This morning on Israeli Public Radio, the news program Hakol Diburim (All Talk) stopped after one hour because of an emergency meeting. The journalists are protesting against the imminent threat to close IBA and fire many of its employees.
As can be seen from the following essay, written at the time when the unfortunate decision to dismantle IBA was made, I am not a detached observer. However, like many other Israelis, I rely on Israeli public radio and television, and cannot imagine my mornings without Reshet Bet.
We were not brought up to be leaders. My father, Jakob Witzthum, an individualist, preferred to observe life and not to take an active part, and my diligent and shy mother worked mainly behind the scenes. My brother and I learnt from both of them: we grew up knowing who we were but, in contrast to Dale Carnegie, we never tried to influence people
My brother became a journalist, and has been working, mainly, in Israeli Public Television, since the 1970s. He is well respected (and well liked), and has the reputation of a serious journalist. He even got the most prestigious journalism award in Israel: The Sokolov Award. But throughout the years, when his peers assumed management positions, my brother preferred to remain a journalist. Instead, he used his time to study the field and became an expert. He created and developed new news programs, wrote articles and did special projects. He even wrote a book Breaking News — Television News In Hard Times, which is the reference book on the subject and is a required reading in communication courses at colleges and universities.
In the last few months, the Israeli government has started taking steps towards the termination of public television and radio under the pretext of efficiency. In Israel, each household that owns a television set has to pay an annual tax of about $100, which goes toward public broadcasting. Our prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has taken it upon himself to save the Israelis this enormous sum — the equivalent of about 20 portions falafel in pita (the national food in Israel which is sold on the street).
In the US, people do not pay special tax for public broadcasting (PBS), and several times a year, live on the air, each public station has to beg for money from its faithful audience. I feel that this type of arrangement compromises the work of the journalists who find themselves in the role of fundraisers. Besides, those tedious campaigns come instead of the regular programming.
Public broadcasting, which started in Great Britain, could be found in all democratic countries. It is funded by tax money, and is accountable only to the public. We should not expect to get it for free, if the public does not pay it means that someone else does. We do not wish to be dependent of the arbitrary interests of politicians and millionaires. In Dallas TX, for example, as a means of enticing people to donate money, the local public radio station had to find sponsors who donated money to give as awards to the listeners. We had several great breakfasts at Le Madeleine — a French café in Dallas as a reward for our contribution.
In Israel, until now public stations did not have to beg for money. My brother was able to just be a journalist. Sadly, desperate times call for desperate measures. Israel Broadcast Authority (with its audience) is fighting for its survival. Last week, I was surprised to see my brother taking his gloves off at an interview on commercial channel where he advocated public broadcasting. It transpired that the interviewer and the other journalists in the studio all got all their training in public television.
They eventually moved on, but my brother who is going to be 67 next January, stayed. He never left because he has always believed in public television, and also because it is the natural venue for his type of more serious journalism.
It will be a very sad day for Israel, and for our democracy and culture if public broadcasting ceases to exist.
PS: An important article about the BBC is “Who Needs The BBC?” which was written in one of its darkest period.