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The murky call on a hardball interview with Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

The tabloid press plays fast and loose with the truth, so anyone who gobbled up last week’s NHK story in the weekly Friday should have added a dash of salt. An unnamed employee told Friday that the prime minister’s office demanded the public broadcaster apologize for questions asked in its interview with Liberal Democratic Party Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on the nightly in-depth news show “Closeup Gendai.” Friday said the incident reinforces the view that under its new chairman, Katsuto Momii, NHK is beholden to the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, since the prime minister’s office got its apology as well as a pledge to root out the person responsible for the faux pas.

The anonymous source said the “atmosphere was tense” when Suga showed up for the July 3 interview, which would be broadcast live. “Closeup Gendai” provided an outline of the questions beforehand, which is normal. What was not normal, according to the source, was Momii showing up to personally greet the guest and a top NHK executive monitoring the show from a control room.

The interview was conducted by the show’s regular host, Hiroko Kuniya, who has a reputation for bluntness. Compared with other NHK on-air talent she is definitely more probing, but compared with interviewers at, say, the BBC, with which NHK likes to compare itself, she’s tame. Two topics were discussed: The meetings between Japan and North Korea regarding Japanese abductees, and the Cabinet’s decision to allow Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to participate in collective self-defense activities overseas.

The seven minutes devoted to North Korea didn’t offer much drama, even when Kuniya asked if there was a danger of “betraying the (abductees’) families’ expectations.” The discussion about collective self-defense, however, was prefaced by a video explanation that sounded critical of the Cabinet decision, and Kuniya followed up Suga’s boilerplate answers with questions that Friday characterized as “sharp.”

Suga kept avoiding direct answers to her queries about the ethics of unilaterally reinterpreting the Constitution and how easy it would be for Japan to become involved in other people’s wars. He mentioned 1.5 million Japanese living overseas and another 18 million traveling abroad every year as reasons to participate in collective self-defense.

Suga didn’t visibly betray any discomfort during the interview, which was not as pointed as the prefatory explanation. But Friday reports that after it finished, a Suga aide approached NHK staff and said angrily, “What was that about?” He objected to Kuniya’s interrupting Suga to make him clarify points or stay on topic. The NHK source told Friday that the executive on hand “kept bowing and apologizing.” Several hours later the prime minister’s office allegedly sent a complaint to NHK, accusing the broadcaster of not “controlling the situation,” meaning Kuniya’s supposedly hectoring tone. Reportedly, the announcer was so upset she wept.

When Friday later called the NHK publicity department for a comment, the spokesperson denied that the government had complained, and last week NHK publicly disavowed the article. The magazine quoted a professor of media studies who said that NHK’s “independence” has been compromised since Momii became chairman, but NHK isn’t as monolithic as critics think it is.

As explained in this column two weeks ago, NHK news decided, for reasons unknown, not to cover the man who set himself on fire near Shinjuku Station to protest the collective self-defense decision, but “Closeup Gendai” often takes the government to task for decisions its regular news programs never question. Some NHK documentaries speak truth to power, but there was that “NHK Special” aired last Sunday that was simply a regurgitation of the LDP’s position on collective self-defense. There are different entities within the organization, so even if NHK’s top brass toes the line, individual production units do what they want up to a point.

Regardless of whether or not an apology was given, the Suga interview was broadcast live and is still available on demand, and it at least had a semblance of professional spontaneity. What’s most annoying about NHK information programming is its pre-digested quality.

But it’s not a problem limited to NHK. Friday’s claim that the broadcaster caved under government pressure for doing its job avoids the larger matter of the mainstream media’s absence of rigor. Kuniya could have been more effective in her interrogation, but she did try to pin down Suga, who, in accordance with what Asahi Shimbun has described as the Abe media strategy, kept sidestepping her questions.

Why they need to do this is a mystery. Though the Cabinet’s means of approving the right of collective self-defense might be suspect, practically speaking the Self-Defense Forces remain limited by the Constitution with regard to what they can do overseas, even if the right of collective self-defense is made into law, so Abe’s tactics may have less to do with obfuscation than with a lack of verbal skills — or even knowledge.

Asahi said the prime minister’s news conference following the Cabinet decision was controlled in such a way that there was no risk of him having to extemporize. Four of the reporters who asked questions had presumably been pre-screened, because Abe answered them by basically reading from a script. There was one potentially interesting question from an AP reporter, who asked if collective self-defense means a greater “sacrifice” for SDF personnel. Abe said something about how proud he was of the SDF and didn’t address the issue of Japanese soldiers being in harm’s way, but the wording of the question was too vague in the first place.

In his July 6 Tokyo Shimbun column, veteran journalist Jiro Yamaguchi described the news conference in a different way, as one big dictation exercise — reporters scribbling or typing away and nobody asking the most obvious questions, not because they’ve been cowed by authority, but because they “have lost the ability to think.” The public can be forgiven if it seems confused about collective self-defense, since neither the government nor the press act as if they understand it either.