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Coverup just makes the scandal worse

by Philip Brasor

The Yukijirushi (Snow Brand) contaminated-milk scandal was the product of corporate arrogance aggravated by a bunker mentality. President Tetsuro Ishikawa’s apologies meant little after he admitted he had no idea what goes on in his plants. Having helmed the number one dairy products company for several decades and never experienced a year without a profit, the executive couldn’t comprehend that something could actually go wrong.

Such an attitude can be expected to excite outrage in consumers, but before that it was the media’s prerogative to be furious. Individual reporters will sometimes display impatience when given the brush-off, but the entire coverage of the Snow Brand calamity has been rife with resentment and payback, an attitude exemplified in an exchange between Ishikawa and an anonymous reporter after one of the press conferences. As Ishikawa tried to flee the press, who obviously were not satisfied with his answers, he yelled at them to leave him alone. “I haven’t slept in days,” he said, to which the reporter barked back, “Neither have I!” (Ishikawa made good on his petulant remark — he entered the hospital.)

The media themselves are often accused of arrogance, so when they get their comeuppance it can be pretty tough. Last year, after TV Asahi’s news department reported that vegetables grown in Saitama Prefecture contained unacceptable levels of dioxin, farmers in the prefecture protested loudly and were vindicated when the broadcaster found out its figures were faulty. They apologized and retracted the report, but it wasn’t enough. The farmers sued.

Ever since then, the media have generally laid off dioxin reports, even though it’s a well-documented fact that Japan produces more of the pollutant than any other developed country. At the time they were still smarting from the keelhauling they’d received for supposedly over-reporting an outbreak of O-157 bacteria in Kansai connected to kaiware sprouts. With the Yukijirushi scandal, however, there is no question that the contamination was caused by corporate negligence, and once the media sniffed “coverup,” they went in for the kill.

It’s difficult to feel sorry for Ishikawa and the other executives, but the entire company, as well as their distributors and suppliers, are being made to suffer. The media has essentially demanded that they be present when Yukijirushi carries out the required hansei (reflection on one’s mistakes).

So, not only do they get the standard photo op of all the top brass bowing in contrition, but they are allowed to follow harried Snow salesmen on their rounds as they pass out coupons for free butter and cheese to victims (who sometimes refuse them, probably because cameras are present). Supplementary hansei includes ski jumper Masahiko Harada, who is sponsored by Yukijirushi, voluntarily “restraining” his sports activities; as well as cancellation of the new series of commercials for Yukijirushi products featuring legendary actress Sayuri Yoshinaga.

Some news producers have realized that they need to pull back a little from the attack. Dairy farmers have complained to various news organizations that the coverage is unfairly implicating them in Yukijirushi’s troubles. Last week, TV Asahi’s “News Station” (the show sued by the Saitama farmers, and thus understandably sensitive to such criticism) went directly to the barn of an independent dairy farmer who told viewers that milk itself was still very safe.

With all this fuss the public can be expected to over-react, since it always does. After the Wakayama curry poisoning incident two years ago, curry sales dropped dramatically, even though everyone knew it was an isolated incident. What’s baffling about Yukijirushi is that the company didn’t understand this very fundamental aspect of public relations.

The pharmaceutical company Santen does. Last month, about a week before the Yukijirushi scandal broke, an extortionist told Santen that he had contaminated some of their eye drops. The company immediately recalled the product and told the media, knowing that the slightest hesitation could mean disaster.

In the meantime, a day doesn’t pass without yet another report of a food company recalling its products. Of course, it’s summertime and the food poisoning is easy, but the media seems to be taking credit for all this sudden corporate accountability. And they deserve it, even if a lot of the recalls seem to be, like the Santen action, more or less pre-emptive: Get there before the reporters do.

Coverups of corporate malfeasance are unforgivable for obvious reasons, but they are treated as particularly sinister by the media because nothing incenses newspeople more than being denied the opportunity to do their job. When several Yukijirushi executives kept reporters waiting by showing up an hour late for a scheduled press conference, they were practically lynched. The press’s angry reaction received as much coverage as the press conference itself.

The media seems to be telling viewers, “See, this is what we have to put up with from these lying bastards.”