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Less ‘exclusionary’ DPJ to test mettle of reporters

The resounding victory by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in the general election Aug. 30 not only will bring about a change of government but also is likely to shatter an exclusionary “press club” system that has long prevented freelance, non-Japanese and other nonmember journalists from interviewing the prime minister and other top political leaders.

Strange, if not absurd, though it may look, Japan has long had the system — in which one press club is established in the offices of the prime minister, government ministries, political parties and other organizations. Membership in the club is limited to major Japanese newspapers, press agencies and radio and TV stations. This means that only members of the press clubs can attend news conferences and question the prime minister, Cabinet minister and government officials.

The first sign of the DPJ moving toward a revamping of this system was March 24, when Ichiro Ozawa, then president of the party, invited freelance journalists and foreign correspondents to his press conference.

Takashi Uesugi, one of the freelancers, commended Ozawa’s move, saying, “Those of us who do not belong to press clubs are not given any chance of attending press meetings held by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the prime minister’s office, government ministries, or the public prosecutor’s office.”

Uesugi asked Ozawa, who at the time was regarded as the most likely candidate to become the prime minister after the general election, whether he would open his press conferences to outsiders or maintain the exclusivity. Ozawa replied, “I have not changed my policy of inviting anybody and everybody to my press conferences.”

Although he was forced to resign as the DPJ president because of a political donations scandal involving his secretary, it appears all but certain that his policy will be taken up by his successor, Yukio Hatoyama, who was elected new prime minister by the Diet last week.

If that materializes, any foreign correspondent or freelance journalist will be able to attend the prime minister’s press conferences and ask questions, though they will naturally be subject to certain security regulations. This, some critics say, will make Japan “like any other country.”

This could be bad news for many veteran political reporters who have long enjoyed exclusive privileges through cozy relations with the political establishment, dominated for more than half a century by the LDP. Unlike reporters in countries where periodic changes of government are the norm, those under Japan’s one-party rule developed much more collusive relations with politicians in power.

There have been a number of cases in which reporters assigned to cover events related to LDP factional groups get fully acquainted with the inner workings of such groups, become “brains” of powerful figures, serve as public relations agents, act as political conciliators, and engage in politics rather than report political events. More often than not, they tend to place more emphasis on protecting their vested interest than on writing facts that the public is entitled to know.

Even after climbing the corporate ladder and gaining high executive positions, some of these reporters retain their ability to influence politicians, because the political landscape continues to be run by the same party. Seldom are they challenged over such behavior.

Another evil effect emanating from decades of one-party rule is an acute shortage of reporters who are well-versed on specific policy matters and capable of discussing and debating policy issues on an equal footing with bureaucrats and experts. Many senior political journalists may know what is going on behind the scenes but have limited knowledge of what policies should be pursued for the good of the nation.

During the decades of LDP rule, the replacement of one prime minister with another did not constitute a shift of power from one political party to another; rather, the change was among intraparty factions. Policies were drafted by bureaucrats and amended to reflect the will of the most influential politicians at the time before being written into legislative bills.

Under these circumstances the primary interest of reporters by and large was to know what influential politicians were really thinking since their will and human relationships influenced policy. What ensued was a lack of logical analysis of the government’s policies, which in turn has further strengthened the bureaucrats’ positions.

Now that a major change of government has taken place, it is incumbent upon all those in the field of journalism to analyze the feasibility of policy proposals put forward by competing political parties. Achieving that end requires that individual reporters be fully knowledgeable in specific fields, such as diplomacy, agriculture or education.

There are numerous well-qualified freelance journalists who are not members of the existing press clubs and, therefore, are not permitted to take part in press conferences. Once the Prime Minister’s Office, government ministries, political parties and the like open their doors to nonmember journalists, a large number of them will get the chance to come in direct contact with political leaders. This may spell the end for “big name” political commentators who have made themselves well-known on national TV programs. The competition with younger reporters could raise suspicions that some of these commentators reached their position simply because of the decades of close ties with the LDP.

But will the younger political reporters, long fed up with their seniors’ perks, have the ability and courage to change the antiquated political journalism that grew out of the LDP’s one-party rule.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the September issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.