Wearing two hats will damage NHK

Tokyo Electric Power Co. has picked Mr. Fumio Sudo, the top official at Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK), as one of its six outside directors. The chairman of NHK’s board of governors said he has no intention of leaving his NHK post. If he serves concurrently for both NHK and Tepco, however, NHK’s trustworthiness as a media organization could suffer.

Under the Broadcast Law, the 12 NHK governors are appointed by the prime minister with the consent of both houses of the Diet. Their term is three years. The governors selected from their number Mr. Sudo, a former president of JFE Steel Corp. and JFE Holdings Inc., as chairman of the board of governors.

The board is the highest decision-making body at NHK, whose operation is made possible through fees paid by viewers. The board decides NHK’s budget, appoints its president, responsible for broadcasting operations, and evaluates the performance of its top executives. Although the governors are not allowed under law to interfere with the content of its TV and radio programming, they hold strong influence over the president and other executives.

The Fukushima nuclear crisis and question over the role of nuclear power are currently part of the most important public issues facing Japan and thus part of the most important news stories covered by NHK and the media. Tepco operates 13 of the nation’s 50 nuclear reactors (the figure does not include the Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4 reactors at the stricken Fukushima No. 1 plant).

Tepco will become virtually nationalized with the government pouring ¥1 trillion in public funds into the utility and gaining more than 50 percent of its voting rights. Mr. Sudo should consider the rationale behind the Broadcast Law that prevents the government from directly choosing NHK’s president and top executives. Serving both as NHK’s No. 1 official and at Tepco is almost no different than a government official leading the broadcaster. The potential conflict of interest will lead to strong doubts about NHK’s fairness and impartiality in its reporting on Tepco issues. It could also lead to undue influence and pressure on reporters and program directors.

If Mr. Sudo insists on serving both the positions, it suggests he does not understand NHK’s mission. He should resign as the chairman of the board of governors at NHK. Neither communications minister Tatsuo Kawabata nor trade and industry minister Yukio Edano opposes his serving both on grounds the law does not prohibit him from doing so. This is also deplorable.