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Net TV expresses views the mainstream ignores

by Philip Brasor

Last week’s column mentioned “Pack-in News,” a current-affairs talk show that used to stream on the Internet TV channel Kinkin.tv, which is the personal project of veteran actor-emcee Kinya Aikawa. It was a continuation of “Pack-in Journal,” a show hosted by Aikawa on the satellite station Asahi Newstar that started in 1998 and was cancelled last spring. Aikawa, using his own money, launched his subscription-based Internet endeavor last April and centered it on “Pack-in News,” but in the past year the 78-year-old actor decided to dedicate his remaining days to his theater company and movie projects, and discontinued the talk show in March. Some of the regular panelists felt it would be a waste to squander the show’s momentum and two weeks ago launched another Internet channel, DemocraTV, which has the same format as “Pack-in News.”

Reporter Hajime Imai told the Tokyo Shimbun that both Aikawa’s talk show and the new venture presented information “with no taboos” because there was no fear of pressure from sponsors. DemocraTV will also be funded by subscribers (¥515 a month), but Imai says the regulars on Aikawa’s old show have also “invested” in the new enterprise, adding that “journalists should become more involved in creating new media.”

“Pack-in Journal” was known as an alternative to the polite orthodoxy of mainstream journalism, which takes the sacred mission of “fairness” to mind-numbing extremes. The pundits who appeared on Aikawa’s show argued and shared their views in an unfettered fashion, but it wasn’t the comical free-for-all found on TV Asahi’s long-running political variety show “Beat Takeshi’s TV Tackle,” which is more interested in making public officials red-faced with anger than explaining what’s behind the headlines. For all its seeming irreverence, “TV Tackle” never challenges the status quo. In fact, politicians fight their way to get on it, and several, such as Liberal Democratic Party star Yoichi Masuzoe and Your Party idol Kenji Eda, achieved fame there before gaining public office.

What secured “Pack-in Journal” its reputation for reliability was coverage of the nuclear accident at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant in March 2011. While terrestrial TV stations trotted out the same bunch of nuclear experts and official apologists, “Pack-in Journal” discussed what was actually going on and approached the disaster from a realistic perspective. Aikawa highlighted Kyoto University Professor Hiroaki Koide, a nuclear scientist who is known to have serious reservations about the energy industry, and while some people claim that Koide’s regular appearances pointed to an antinuclear bias, for a while “Pack-in Journal” was the only place on TV where you could hear anything but the authorized line. Fans of the show insist it was this aspect that prompted Asahi Newstar to take it off the air, though the reason given was financial in nature.

A clearer example of forthright journalism being nipped in the bud was “Tanemaki Journal,” an Osaka-based radio show also noted for its unconventional coverage of the Fukushima crisis. Mainichi Hoso, the station that aired the program, canceled it last September citing “personnel cuts” as the reason. According to an article in the Asahi Shimbun last August, Mainichi executives were uncomfortable with the show because Kansai Electric Power is a major sponsor. Nevertheless, the program won a Sakata Memorial Journalism Award in March 2012, and sources in the company told Asahi that ratings were always solid. When Mainichi announced the cancellation of “Tanemaki” last July, regular listeners protested outside the company’s offices. The show’s regular contributors launched “Radio Forum” in January, which is now broadcast on 39 community FM stations throughout Japan, including four cities that host nuclear power plants.

But the alternative news service that has attracted the most attention is 8bitnews, established by Jun Hori, a former staff announcer at NHK. Hori became popular as the host of “Bizspo,” NHK’s weekly roundup of business and sports news, but he had other ambitions. Last year he attended the University of California at Los Angeles to study digital media and while there produced a documentary, “Henshin” (“Metamorphosis”), about the nuclear power industry in Japan centered on the Fukushima accident. In February, he showed the film at UCLA and announced plans to screen it elsewhere.

NHK, still his employer and the sponsor of his studies, reacted negatively. Hori told the Internet video service Niconico Douga that his supervisors claimed screenings outside the university did not fall within “the purpose of his foreign study.” NHK was also angered by Hori’s participation in a symposium where he discussed NHK’s coverage of the accident, as well as personal Twitter comments in which Hori questioned some of NHK’s programming decisions. When Hori returned from Los Angeles, instead of being assigned to moderate a talk show, which he says he was expecting, NHK told him he would be hosting a cooking program. He quit April 1.

“Henshin” can be viewed freely, with English subtitles, on 8bitnews, along with other video reports by “citizen journalists.” During his UCLA sojourn Hori was impressed by the concept of public access, in which broadcasters are compelled by law to provide facilities to the public. Hajime Shiraishi, the head of another alternative channel, OurPlanetTV, proposed to NHK that it make part of its bandwidth available to citizens since it is Japan’s public broadcaster and has a mandate to collect fees from anyone with a television. Hiromi Nagata, a former NHK producer, told Tokyo Shimbun that NHK’s mission should be “to reinforce democratic principles, but as we can see with Hori’s case its idea of freedom of speech doesn’t extend to its own employees.”

Commercial TV only cares about sponsors, and though NHK subsidiaries produce some fine documentaries, NHK itself is beholden to lawmakers who approve its budget. As Shiraishi told Tokyo Shimbun, “The public is ignoring mainstream media because mainstream media is ignoring the public.”