On a recent evening news broadcast, Channel 14 anchor Shimon Riklin and his team of commentators empathized with indicted Shas MK Aryeh Deri on his recent plea deal, called Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit a “bad seed” for putting former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on trial, and questioned the seriousness of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
For Israeli broadcast news, this is far from common fare. But for Channel 14, a conservative channel sometimes likened to Fox News and officially known as Now 14, that’s kind of the point. This is a 24-hour news station that’s always on, except on Shabbat. The channel inhabits a milieu in which Jewish Orthodox garb and mores are standard — few anchors, presenters or reporters appear without a head covering — and in which Netanyahu remains a political hero.
Netanyahu was famously focused on his portrayal in the media and sought to control the narrative — two of the cases he is on trial for revolve around attempts to sway press coverage. In print, Israel Hayom is seen by many as a mouthpiece for Netanyahu, but there had been no broadcast equivalent, until Now 14.
Backed by an influx of money from Russian businessman Yitzchak Mirilashvili — son of Georgian-born billionaire Mikhael Mirilashvili, who paid for a new studio and on-air talent — and moved into a slot on the dial alongside other news channels, Now 14 is making a move for legitimacy as a true conservative alternative to Israel’s mainstream news channels.
But critics say that so long as the channel continues to parrot the former prime minister, it will never be taken seriously in the Israeli media landscape.
“It doesn’t offer good journalism, it has no talent and it has ethical problems,” said Eytan Gilboa, professor and founding director of the School of Communication at Bar Ilan University. “It has just one position, which is that it’s Netanyahu’s channel.”
Others, however, maintain that Israel’s mainstream channels are megaphones for liberal politicians, leaving a space open in the mediasphere for a religious, right-wing option.
“The other channels have completely left-wing tendencies,” said veteran broadcast journalist Yaakov Ahimeir, 83, who served as a presenter on radio station Kol Yisrael and Channel 1 since the early 1970s, and still appears on the air occasionally. “They may have had right-wing guests, but the right-wing public felt excluded from these channels. That’s why establishing ‘Now 14’ is a necessity. It gives a wider view of issues in Israel.”
The other two main commercial news channels, 12 and 13, reflect a more standard, critical approach to Israeli politics. Channel 13, formally known as Reshet 13, probed much of the early corruption allegations made against Netanyahu, but then underwent a reshaping more recently as a more traditional, slightly less left-leaning news organization.
Keshet’s Channel 12 is Reshet’s main competitor, seen as the standard bearer for Israeli news programming. It was once accused by Yair Netanyahu, eldest son of Netanyahu, of having media coverage that was almost as damaging to the Jewish people as the Nazis.
It also competes with Kan on Channel 11, a publicly funded news outlet that produces independent reporting.
Now 14 first began broadcasting in August 2014, initially as cable and satellite station Channel 20, with the mission of providing Jewish heritage content. In 2016, given changes being made in Israel’s TV regulatory system, the channel received permission from the Israel Broadcasting Authority to broadcast its own news programs.
Early last year, with funding from Mirilashvili, Channel 20 moved over to 14, completing a bloc of news channels that begins with public broadcaster Kan on 11, and began calling itself Now 14.
Even before the move, Netanyahu has long been accused of being involved in Channel 20’s operations.
According to Nir Hefetz, a former aide to Netanyahu turned state’s witness in the graft cases against him, Netanyahu’s son Yair sought to involve himself in the hiring of reporters at Channel 14, sending a list of names that the channel should pick from.
When the candidates were not chosen, Yair sat down with the network’s executives to voice his frustration, Hefetz has said.
Even so, many at the network are close to Netanyahu both personally and ideologically.
Among the channel’s presenters are Erel Segal and Jacob Bardugo, two unabashed supporters of Netanyahu and well-known right-wing commentators. Another is Yinon Magal, a media personality and former right-wing politician.
In February 2020, Segal, then a news presenter on Kan 11, was suspended for appearing in a video with Netanyahu, in which he, Magal and Riklin sang the song “Praise, O Jerusalem” with the prime minister, weeks before the March 2020 election. Seven months later, he moved over to Channel 20.
But the channel’s supporters say any alignment with Netanyahu is a result of the station’s right-wing bent.
“It’s right-wing in its spirit,” said Ahimeir. “It’s not necessarily to promote Mr. Netanyahu as the opposition leader, it’s just Jewish, traditional and Zionist.”
Asked to respond to charges that the channel was controlled or influenced by the prime minister, the station management responded only that as a media company, Channel 14 has a permit to broadcast on television and radio and operates according to the law and regulations of the state of Israel.
The channel had great potential to appeal to the political right, said Bar Ilan’s Gilboa, noting the large number of right-wing voters.
Instead, he said, “It looks like a community TV channel. They’re not professional journalists, it’s one-way advocacy.”
Ratings for Now 14 have remained poor, despite the switch. The channel’s primetime news broadcast rarely reaches a quarter of what Channels 12 and 13 get, according to viewership numbers published by Ice.co.il.
Gilboa said the channel had skimped on staff and correspondents needed to make it a sound news channel. Ad revenue has been minimal even with the move up the dial, he said. The loss of advertising shekels to digital media is an industry-wide problem, but it will affect Channel 14 more acutely so long as it remains ensconced in its pro-Netanyahu niche, he said.
“Three commercial channels is too much, there’s no room in terms of ad revenues,” said Gilboa. “If 14 thought it would gain more advertising and revenues, that’s not happening and it won’t happen unless it changes its content.”
Tsuriel Rashi, a media professor at Ariel University, noted that the channel was still finding its feet in a media landscape where newcomers are rare, and could still be figuring out its identity.
“We need a few years to know if it’s a channel that’s traditional, right-wing or just serves Bibi,” said Rashi.