Israeli media this week revealed secretly recorded conversations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the publisher of the country's best-selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth. The contents of the conversations, ostensibly negotiations between the two men, once again expose the bitter truth about the world of Israel's media: it is one in which media and journalistic outlets are driven solely by economic interests. They are beholden by the owners' bottom line, and their journalistic work is constrained and governed by external interests and illicit relationships with the subjects of their coverage.
According to the reports by Haaretz and Channel 2, the recordings are of Netanyahu and Yedioth publisher Arnon “Noni” Mozes discussing a deal according to which Yedioth will alter its hostile coverage of Netanyahu. In return, Netanyahu will act to reduce the circulation of rival newspaper Israel Hayom, and perhaps even stop it from putting out a weekend magazine edition.
Such deals reiterate just how baseless many of the widespread axioms about the Israeli press and journalists are, specifically:
- That Yedioth Ahronoth is a newspaper that is ideologically opposed to Netanyahu.
- That Israel Hayom is an ideologically right-wing newspaper.
- That journalists at both Yedioth and Israel Hayom operate independently and free of third-party interests.
The alleged deal demonstrates that Yedioth Ahronoth doesn't actually have a problem with Netanyahu and Israel Hayom isn't particularly identified with the political right. They are personal media outlets used for specific aims: Yedioth is utilized to generate profits for the ownership, controlled by Mozes. Its hostile coverage of Netanyahu is not the result of any affinity for his political opponents, and certainly not borne of ideology; it is a response to the threat posed to Yedioth's bottom line by Netanyahu when he brought about the creation of Israel Hayom.
On the one hand, we can conclude from the alleged conversations that Israel Hayom is not the ideological mouthpiece of a silenced right wing, but rather a blunt instrument designed to serve the political maneuvers of a single politician. Out of a desire to make gains with a “left-wing” newspaper, the prime minister was willing to inflict a price on a “right-wing” paper.
Senior journalists at Israel Hayom have for years boasted that they work for a legitimate news outlet with a conservative slant, rejecting the claim that it is a propaganda tool for Netanyahu, casting aside the clear bias printed on its pages every day. Now it is clear that Netanyahu, it seems, was willing to sell that paper down the river in order to make a few gains with the rival newspaper Israel Hayom loved to slander all those years.
Perhaps most importantly, this type of deal would not be possible in media outlets in which there exists journalistic freedom without intervention by the ownership. If the journalists at Yedioth Ahronot were truly independent, it would not be possible to promise a certain type of coverage of the prime minister. If the journalists at Israel Hayom were truly independent journalists, it would not be possible for the prime minister to affect or limit the paper's circulation.
And if Yedioth's publisher regularly meets with the subjects of his paper's coverage in order to discuss quid pro quo arrangements, and if the acting publisher of Israel Hayom holds similar meetings — how many such meetings do we not hear about? How many shady meetings weren't recorded, or were recorded but not revealed to the public?
The consequences of this scandal are not limited to the future of Benjamin Netanyahu's time in office. Bribery has two sides. This scandal represents the point at which journalistic corruption and the violation of professional ethics become criminal. Mozes, who previously escaped prosecution for illegal eavesdropping, may very well find himself in court over the contents of secretly recorded conversations. The prime minister, who has accused the media of being treasonous, could find himself going down in the same ship as his bitter rival, the man he has spent so much energy demonizing to the electorate.
The eavesdropping scandal from the 90's was a case of industrial espionage. The current case is the story of corrupting Israel's press; it would be only symbolic if the corrupters will get their punishments in this particular context.