Earlier this month, the Association of Television Viewers Who Demand Compliance With the Broadcast Law announced that it may launch a “national campaign” targeting TBS, which it accuses of biased news reporting. Should the broadcaster fail to address the accusation, the association will ask sponsors to avoid buying ads on TBS, or risk becoming “accomplices” in “illegal broadcasts.” The association claims that the network’s news department provided one-sided coverage of the controversial security bills passed by the Diet last fall, thus violating the Broadcast Law, which mandates “fair” coverage. It reached this conclusion after surveying TBS broadcasts and finding that the “duration” of negative coverage of the bills outlasted positive coverage.

Trouble ahead: After being caught having an affair, pop idol Mari Yaguchi (above) was effectively banned from show business.  She lampooned her scandal in a recent commercial for Cup Noodles, but the ad was pulled after complaints from the public.
Trouble ahead: After being caught having an affair, pop idol Mari Yaguchi (above) was effectively banned from show business. She lampooned her scandal in a recent commercial for Cup Noodles, but the ad was pulled after complaints from the public. | KYODO

TBS released a statement that said, “Applying pressure on our sponsors represents a grave threat to freedom of expression and, ultimately, to democracy itself.” In an editorial published on April 13, Asahi Shimbun supported TBS, and while the Asahi did not challenge the association’s findings, it insisted that it is the “mission of any news organization” to “raise questions and discuss problems” related to anything in the public interest. Providing “critical views” of the legislation in question is part of that mission.

Media critic Kayoko Ikeda put it more bluntly. During a discussion on Internet TV station DemocraTV, she said that TBS’s statement was insufficient. The role of the press is also to explain to the public how those in authority use power. Since the Liberal Democratic Party is the ruling party, it “controls the conversation” regarding the security legislation, which it drafted, and so the media’s responsibility is to provide counterarguments.

Still, the association’s threat to go straight to sponsors in order to push its agenda represents a new tactic. As communications minister Sanae Takaichi pointed out in February in a more muted attack on broadcasters who don’t cover issues “fairly,” the government can shut them down if they are found to be in violation of the Broadcast Law. Of course, that will never happen. For one thing, many media outlets tend to comply when the government cries “bias,” but more to the point, however authoritarian the LDP likes to present itself, it would never go as far as to revoke the license of an established media company, lest it look to the world like a petulant dictatorship.

Obviously the association wants to hit TBS where it hurts — on the bottom line — and it sounds like a plausible scheme, given how sensitive Japanese companies can be with regard to public image. Commercials are immediately pulled if the tarento (TV personality) depicted is involved in a scandal, but if the old saying about there not being any such thing as bad publicity holds true, there are also ways of manipulating certain kinds of criticism to one’s advantage.

A few weeks ago Nissin Foods pulled a series of TV commercials for its popular Cup Noodles instant ramen after it received complaints. The series, with the tag line “Crazy Makes the Future,” portrays the fictional Obaka’s (silly persons) University, whose president is veteran comedian Takeshi “Beat” Kitano. The faculty includes TV personality and animal expert Masanori “Mutsugoro” Hata and enka star Sachiko Kobayashi. The offended parties mainly objected to the inclusion of former idol singer Mari Yaguchi and composer Takashi Niigaki. Three years ago Yaguchi, who used to belong to the girl group Morning Musume, was caught having an extra-marital affair and effectively banned from show business. Niigaki was the musician who wrote the pieces attributed to self-proclaimed deaf composer Mamoru Samuragochi, who has since been revealed as a fraud.

In the commercial, both Yaguchi and Niigaki lampoon their scandals, Yaguchi by playing an associate professor of psychology who lectures on the idea of wanting too much, and Niigaki by teaching a performance class in which he “assists” his students by actually playing the piano while they sit in front of the keyboard pretending to.

Nissin removed the ad nine days after it first aired and, according to an article in Tokyo Shimbun, many people think the company overreacted. Brain scientist Kenichiro Mogi said on his blog that, given how inconsequential the ad is, the complaints simply prove how “intolerant” the public has become. Comedian Ryo Fukawa believes that giving in to such pressure “narrows the range of free expression.”

Other commentators went further. Designer Izumi Ichihara told Tokyo Shimbun that “by using people involved in scandals,” the commercial automatically drew attention before and after it left the air. Media critic Maki Fukasawa wonders if causing offense wasn’t Nissin’s intention. As she pointed out on TBS radio, the company “surely knew it would receive complaints before it aired the commercial,” so its decision to pull it must have been a calculated one. The media is now talking about the series more than they probably would have had Nissin not cancelled it.

Planned or not, Nissin responded to the backlash as the complainers hoped it would — a situation that, according to Web journalist Junichiro Nakagawa in a separate essay for Tokyo Shimbun on April 16, proves how “stifling” the social atmosphere on the Internet is. Nakagawa believes the Web provides an outlet for people to “act on anger they feel toward something that has no effect on them.” People who believe that the Internet is a place where free expression reigns are “people who have nothing to lose,” and they can gain a “sense of victory” by needlessly bashing others and getting a reaction.

Those offended by the Nissin ad have nothing to gain by getting Yaguchi and Niigaki off the air except a feeling of accomplishment, and the same can be said of the viewers association threatening TBS. Rather than engage in a debate about the security bills, it means to “win” by exerting pressure on parties who have no stake in that debate, only a stake in TBS. It’s as good an illustration of blackmail as you’re going to get.

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