The Israeli Media was a Major Accomplice in Netanyahu’s Corruption; What will Become of it When He’s Gone?
Some with agony and some with cheerful excitement; the eyes of millions in Israel and around the world are following closely what seems to be the end of Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career. Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel for the last nine years, is currently implicated with five different corruption scandals. No less than three of them involve the Israeli media industry, and derive from Netanyahu’s obsessive endeavour to control it. The row of interrogatees and detainees includes not only Netanyahu and his associates, but also media moguls, journalists and publishers. The main suspicion is bribery: while Netanyahu was striving for positive media coverage, media outlets allegedly provided it – or at least promised to provide it – in exchange for enormous regulatory benefits. In other words, the breach of trust that these scandals reveal is not limited to Netanyahu’s conduct; the Israeli media betrayed its audience just as much, by distorting the news for financial incentives.
Netanyahu’s potential downfall is undoubtedly dramatic, and its political implications are currently discussed by many. But what will be the consequences of the recent scandals for his alleged partners in crime – the Israeli media?
The ramifications of the recent revelations are far-reaching and exceed well beyond the grave repercussions for one politician or another; Rather, the detriment for the Israeli media and its role within the Israeli democracy will echo long after the revolving doors will reshuffle positions in the political establishment. Public trust in the media is the raison d’être and prerequisite for meaningful watchdog journalism. What is at stake, then, lies at the very core of the public discourse in Israel. How could the Israeli media regain its credibility in the eyes of its audience, and re-establish its role as the Fourth Estate?
Over the years, Netanyahu’s relationship with the media knew highs and mostly lows. Although he conquered the political sphere in the early 90s thanks to his rare media skills – and was even nicknamed ‘the magician’ due to his extraordinary capacity to manage his public image – Netanyahu passed most of his career battling the media. Ever obsessed about his media representation, Netanyahu used two different methods to debilitate the media: public defamation on the one hand, and regulation on the other. Netanyahu conducted a consistent public campaign against individual journalists, specific news organisations, and the media as a whole. Long before Donald “fake news” Trump’s race to the presidency, Netanyahu made a habit of bashing the media, blaming journalists for being anti-patriotic liars who conduct a witch-hunt against him and his family. At the same time, he devoted his efforts to gain control over the media. He divided the leading TV newscast to two different TV channels in an attempt to weaken its impact; he tried to convince friendly tycoons to purchase Israeli news organisations; he shut down the public broadcasting authority and strove to divide it as well; he pressured news organisations to fire critical journalists; he promoted fringe extremist far-right cable channel that endorsed him. The list goes on.
A few anecdotes regarding the collapse of Netanyahu’s government in 2014 and the establishment of his new one on 2015 could serve to emphasise how crucial was controlling the media within his political enterprise. Netanyahu’s former government, as he himself admits, fell apart due to his refusal to regulate the daily newspaper “Israel Hayom”. How could one newspaper become prominent enough to bring down the Israeli government? The “Israel Hayom” newspaper is owned by Netanyahu’s greatest donor, Sheldon Edelson, and operates as Netanyahu’s personal propaganda machine. When the parliament voted in favour of restricting the newspaper’s circulation, Netanyahu chose to jeopardise his seat, disassemble the government and go to elections. Israel, to be sure, had greater concerns at the time; for Netanyahu, nonetheless, the threat seemed no less than existential.
Thereafter, when he won the elections and his current government was formed, Netanyahu was determined to take over the media at any price. According to multiple sources, when forming his new coalition, Netanyahu has offered the future partners in his government the ministry of foreign affairs, the ministry of defence, the ministry of economy and so forth. When asked to negotiate the ministry of communications, however, his response was immediate: “I’ll give you the Prime Minister’s office before I let you in the ministry of communications”.
Netanyahu’s unprecedented fixation with the media has led him to cross the lines. According to the ongoing police investigations, he was advancing the interests of Shaul Elovitch – a tycoon who owns one of the largest private holding groups in Israel – in return for favourable media coverage in Elovitch’s news website, ‘Walla!’. The website was flooded with flattering stories about Netanyahu and his family. Criticism was played down. Netanyahu’s wife has reportedly texted Elovitch’s wife whenever she felt unsatisfied with her news coverage. The critical items that nevertheless found their way to the website, quickly vanished into thin air. In exchange, Netanyahu apparently enhanced media policy that was worth billions of shekels for Elovitch’s communications empire.
Elovitch, however, was not alone: the police interrogation found that Netanyahu was negotiating with Noni Mozes, the publisher of one of Israel’s largest newspapers, “Yedioth Ahronoth”, for the same deal. Unfortunately for him, their phone conversations were recorded and obtained by the police. The negotiations were quite straight forward, and Netanyahu even named a few journalists, which he demanded Mozes to employ. According to a different investigation, Netanyahu sought to have one of his associates appointed chairman of the channel 10 news corporation, which is considered critical towards Netanyahu. It was also reported that he pressured his wealthy friend to buy shares in the same TV channel with the intention of improving his positions and guaranteeing a better news coverage.
These corruption tales and the evidences that were exposed so far, which include recorded telephone calls and text messages, seem almost fictional in their explicitness. Netanyahu’s other corruption scandals – which involve the Israeli legal and military systems – portray Israel’s democratic system as deeply rotten and flawed. At the moment, these bribery charges control the public agenda and are likely to bring down the curtain on Netanyahu’s era as the most powerful man in Israel. It might take time, but Netanyahu will eventually go home, and so will his partners in crime. But taking them down is still a far cry from solving the degeneration of the Israeli democracy, as it manifests in its media industry.
With Netanyahu gone, Israel will be forced to face the scorched earth that he had left behind. The Israeli media will require a healing treatment. Cleaning it from corrupt officials and practices will not suffice; the rehabilitation of the public trust in the media will take time and intentional efforts. During Netanyahu’s time in office, the faith of Israelis in the media has dropped from 52% in 2011 to only 28% by the end of 2017 – at least partially due to his public crusade against it. Now that his corruption contaminates multiple media outlets, these numbers are likely to diminish even further. With no public legitimacy, the media is useless as a democratic institution.
How could the media reclaim and regain its integrity and credibility? The Israeli case – as unique as it may sound – should ring warning bells to other media industries around the world. In fact, the structural conditions that allowed the Israeli media’s crimes and misconducts are not exceptional at all.
Over the last two decades, media tech giants – particularly social media moguls – took over the advertising revenues that used to subsidies journalism for years. By the end of 2017, Google and Facebook alone received 63% of the digital ads revenues in the US and 54% worldwide. While the internet advertising revenues in the US soared to 22% in 2016, Facebook and Google grabbed 99% of the growth. In other countries the situation is not different. It is hard to overemphasise the implications of this process for traditional media organisations, whose business model relied on advertising for years.
These developments led media organisations to an insoluble strive for profits, while often facing growing losses. No doubt, the relationship between politicians and the media was always at risk of corruption. Considering the current circumstances, however, the risk is substantially greater. Many media owners no longer profit from their news organisation itself; but rather use it as a means to gain political favours and financial benefits. Shaul Elovitch, for instance, used his news website as a political tool to put pressure on those in power – in this case, Netanyahu. In exchange for positive news coverage, Netanyahu softened the restrictions on other companies that are owned by Elovitch. Thus, Elovitch’s news website became a weapon used to gain more convenient regulation for the benefit of his additional holdings. He did not expect to profit from ads on the website, but from the power guaranteed to him over legislators and decision makers.
This state of affairs instigates corruption: in order to promote their interests, media owners are liable to offer politicians “news bribery” in the form of positive news, or to blackmail them using investigative reports. In other words, the incentives to invest in media organisations significantly changed – and the outcomes put the news that we consume under threat.
If journalism is no longer a profitable business, and the only reasons to finance it are dubious and likely to distort the news – how could the media escape the trap and re-establish its standards and reputation?
The current turmoil in Israel reinforces the urgent need for a new, sustainable business model for journalism. It should serve as a wake-up call not only for media workers and media scholars, but for media consumers as well. Unless a better model is found in the near future, the mass audience might be forced to either pay generously for its news – or risk the decay of its media system, economic sphere and political establishment.
Ayala Panievsky is a research associate at ‘Molad – The Centre for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy’. She is a former journalist for ‘Ha’aretz’ newspaper, and an ex-media consultant for an Israeli Member of Parliament.