The crisis facing several of Israel’s leading news outlets has sparked an impassioned debate within the Jewish state, with some demanding the government act to preserve media diversity while others say there can be no reprieve for losers in times of austerity.
On Thursday, after weeks of uncertainty, Maariv, one of Israel’s leading newspapers, was sold to the publisher of a right-wing daily, despite much opposition from staff.
Under terms of the $19 million deal, the paper was acquired by the owner of the conservative Makor Rishon newspaper, who has pledged to keep on around 300 of Maariv’s 377 editorial staff, and around 1,400 others.
Many of the newspaper’s journalists threatened to go on strike over the deal, fearing for the future of the paper’s editorial line after its sale to Shlomo Ben-Zvi, a West Bank settler who is close to Israel’s nationalist, religious right.
A number of Israeli newspapers have folded in recent years as media ownership grows increasingly concentrated, with players like the top-selling Yediot Aharonot and the mass circulation free sheet Israel Hayom crowding out smaller titles.
For the left-leaning Haaretz daily, it was the “inherent organisational dysfunction and a perpetual lack of cash turned Maariv into a business that could not be controlled.”
But Haaretz has its own cash flow problems with journalists gathering outside its Tel Aviv offices earlier this month to demand access to a board meeting discussing expected layoffs.
Founded in 1919, Haaretz is reportedly in talks to sell its printing press to Yisrael Hayom, which is owned by US billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a major Republican donor and close confidant of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Perhaps the biggest buzz concerns Israel’s Channel 10 television, which broadcast regulators have given until mid-October to pay an $11 million debt to the treasury or face closure.
The company, one of only two commercial TV stations in Israel, has offered to pay the money, with interest, in five installments starting from the end of 2014.
US businessman Ron Lauder, who holds a 25 percent stake in the channel, told the Globes business daily earlier this month he would inject $15 million into the station over the next 12 months if its licence is renewed.
Officials from the Treasury and the communications ministry are considering the offer, but a similar deal was overruled in December by parliament’s economic affairs committee, in a move which Channel 10 said was politically motivated.
“There is a kind of out-of-date vengefulness in not postponing the debt,” Channel 10 CEO Yossi Warshavski was quoted as telling the committee, which is dominated by members of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party and its coalition allies.
Some commentators have accused the government of dragging its heels for political reasons linked to a Channel 10 story accusing Netanyahu of corruption.
In April 2011, Netanyahu sued the channel for $1 million over a report which alleged that private businessmen paid for lavish foreign trips for him and his family when he was a cabinet minister.
But for Anat Saragusti, an expert on the Israeli media scene, talk about a political vendetta is little more than a smokescreen put up by Channel 10 executives to hide their own failings.
“Channel 10 has been losing money from day one, it has never balanced its books,” said Saragusti, who runs Agenda, an NGO which advises social change organisations on media issues.
“It’s very convenient for the owners of Channel 10 to say the politicians closed a commercial channel, closed freedom of speech, rather than taking responsibility and saying: We just don’t want to lose any more money,” she told AFP.
“Why should I as a taxpayer save Channel 10, which was not clever enough to make a proper business plan and now comes to us and says ‘Waive our bills’?” said Saragusti, who once worked for the rival Channel 2 station.
But others argue that protecting diversity in news reporting is not the same as saving a loss-making industrial plant.
“If you want to maintain a democracy you’ve got to bail them out,” said Yaariv Ben-Eliezer of the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Centre near Tel Aviv.
But financial backing should come without political strings attached, he said.
“I want the government to support the media, to support the press, for the freedom of speech in Israel, (which would give us) Maariv and Haaretz and Channel 10 and (state-run) Channel 1, with no political intervention,” he told AFP.
Saragusti argues that even with government help — a politically risky option when Netanyahu is slashing budgets and hiking taxes to save the economy from the worst of the global crisis — the tight business climate and competition from new media will force stringent cuts on newspapers and television.
“At the end of the day, when they have to make cuts, they let the journalists go and they save (reality shows like) ‘Beauty and the Geek’ and ‘Survivor’,” she said.
“The reality stuff stays and good journalism goes.”