As someone who toiled for several years inside NHK during the early 1990s, it is bemusing to see the simplistic criticism of the quasi-official broadcaster by the Japanese media.

Liberal newspapers express their dismay about “censorship” amid political pressure, of a documentary about a mock trial concerning Pacific War sex slaves. Conservative publications lambaste the broadcaster for not being “fair and balanced.”

This brouhaha comes in the wake of a fraud scandal (so far, five NHK employees are known to have embezzled millions of yen since 1997), which has led to an increasing number of households refusing to pay their subscriber fees.

The resignation of NHK’s three-term President Katsuji Ebisawa — who was immediately rehired as an adviser — has not abated public anger, especially when he has been replaced by someone viewed as one of his protoges.

The broadcaster has long been polarized by opposing internal forces.

A large cadre of rank-and-file programming employees has traditionally been left-leaning.

However, the NHK executives always have known who fills their rice bowl — conservative politicians. Thus they have counter-balanced the more liberal tendencies of the reporters and producers.

The comfort woman program brought the internal conflict to the forefront. The documentary centered on a “people’s tribunal” staged by an obscure feminist group.

The mock trial featured no defense witnesses, with the “verdict” a foregone conclusion: the emperor was culpable. This was hardly an objective historical exercise.

Although it is laudable for a Japanese broadcaster to examine why and how the Japanese Imperial Army enslaved thousands of Asian women, the decision by NHK to focus a documentary on an advocacy group’s public relations stunt seemed fraught with peril from the outset.

An in-house probe into claims that the company violated the Broadcasting Law by allowing Liberal Democratic Party heavyweights Shinzo Abe and Shoichi Nakagawa to pressure NHK into removing parts of the program was later dismissed by a top producer.

“I cannot trust the results of the probe led by the current top managers who sold their souls to politicians,” Satoru Nagai said.

NHK executives say it they who approached the LDP bigwigs, not the other way around. NHK has long engaged in self-policing and what is remarkable in this instance was that the program made it into the final stages of production before being clumsily edited at nearly the last hour.

NHK’s charter seems to virtually guarantee that what it airs will be bland, as it seeks to avoid anything that would cause distress or fuel complaints oft bias, either from the left or the right.

During the years I spent inside NHK (involved with international radio and television news production) several employees told me that what producers and executives feared most were calls of protest from Diet lawmakers

You can call that a squeamish attitude, but it has long ensured the smooth flow of funds to NHK from the public and Parliament.

It was recently revealed, with much less fuss, that NHK accepted tens of millions of yen in “sponsorships” from the Japanese companies featured in its popular “Project X” series on postwar corporate achievements.

In the public relations industry such sponsor-supported editorial material is known as an advertorial. When broadcasters do it and don’t disclose it, public prosecutors call it payola.

Japan’s Broadcast Law forbids such clandestine payments.

This begs the question of what is the raison d’etre for a public broadcaster, which has lost the trust of the public and at the same time appears beholden to corporate and political interests?

It also appears to be standard practice at NHK to turn press releases from government ministries into news stories, almost verbatim. There is usually no attribution (i.e. “the Foreign Ministry said today”) and the information is accepted as the gospel truth with no independent verification or elucidation.

I saw this first hand for years. This may be a standard practice for a government mouthpiece but a rather poor approach to journalism for a supposedly objective broadcaster.

Even the best media organizations are susceptible to ethical lapses and scandal — witness the recent troubles at such American media icons as The New York Times and CBS News.

However, when there are institutional problems recurring over many years there should be permanent repercussions.

It would be enlightening to see the Diet members — who have been mollycoddled for decades by the broadcaster whose budget they approve — perform a public service and probe NHK’s practices.

Another area that invites scrutiny is NHK’s dozens of incestuous production and sales subsidiaries.

Several hundred executives of these companies are “retirees” from NHK, who, in “amakudari” tradition, enjoy sizable salaries and a second retirement scheme way out of proportion to the little work they perform.

The National Association of Commercial Broadcasters has raised concern about these subsidiaries, which raked in revenues of 267 billion yen in fiscal 2003.

The commercial broadcasters contend that nonprofit NHK uses the affiliated companies as a legal loophole to engage in for-profit businesses.

These companies, all with the prestigious NHK moniker in their names, publish books, stage events, produce videos and software, manage properties, provide security services and build studios.

The Ministry of International Affairs and Communications saw fit two years ago to tell NHK to generally limit the activities of its 36 offspring to matters dealing directly NHK programs or projects.

In an era when viewers and listeners can choose from hundreds of commercial outlets, it seems timely for Japan to review the relevancy of a bloated NHK.

The scandal-plagued broadcaster is presently consuming nearly 700 billion yen a year — almost as much as Japan’s Official Development Assistance budget.

The government has seen fit to privatize Japan Railways and Prime Minister Koizumi is looking to do the same with the post office. Perhaps NHK should be next.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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