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Sticky bonds of the media and government

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Last month, the United Nations Human Rights Council released a report critical of the Japanese government. The author, David Kaye, expressed concern over the way the media is pressured by the authorities to support their policies. The government objected to the report, saying it has never tried to sway the media.

Kaye was also critical of the media itself, focusing on the infamous press clubs that control access to government information and thus limit the kind of reporting that checks state overreach and malfeasance. The end game for many reporters is forming working relationships with individuals in power.

It’s to the Asahi Shimbun‘s credit that the paper covered Kaye’s views comprehensively, since the Asahi is, regardless of its left-leaning reputation, as complicit in the practice of “access journalism” as any of its conservative competitors. The impact of print reporting has been waning for the past 20 years. In 1989, the Asahi helped bring down the administration of Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita with its scoop about Recruit Corporation’s donations to politicians. Though recent allegations that say Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has helped two education firms gain bureaucratic favors have caused a lot of fuss in the newspapers, it remains to be seen if they will hurt his administration in as meaningful a way. New opinion polls show the public is bothered by the allegations, and they’re likely getting their information from TV, which is covering the scandal but not as intently.

NHK’s coverage has been, until this last week, particularly cautious. A June 7 article in the online journal Litera mentioned that the public broadcaster interviewed former education vice minister Kihei Maekawa prior to his May 25 news conference, where he said there were documents showing that the ministry had been pressured to approve a new veterinary school proposed by Abe’s friend, Kotaro Kake. However, after the Yomiuri Shimbun ran an article about Maekawa’s visits to a Tokyo bar where young women allegedly hook up with men for sex, NHK decided not to run the interview.

The Asahi had already reported the documents, thus scoring a scoop, something NHK did last year when it was the first media outlet to report that the Emperor wanted to step down before he dies. Though there is every indication that this intelligence was leaked by someone in the Imperial Household Agency, Abe was reportedly very angry about it.

In March, the broadcaster gave its Chairman Award to Akiko Iwata, an in-house political reporter and member of NHK’s editorial board who has been covering Abe closely since 2002. Iwata is famous for being one of Abe’s most loyal champions, as well as an occasional guest at Abe’s home owing to a relationship between her family and his. Many in the media see her as the prime minister’s most effective PR flack.

According to Litera, it was Iwata who promulgated the belief that Abe’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin last fall would result in progress on the return of the Northern Territories to Japan, despite all evidence to the contrary. The idea was to show that the summit was a success when, in fact, it was only successful from the Russian standpoint. Other media followed Iwata’s lead, thus giving the story more credence, because they themselves had nothing more interesting to report. The magazine Shukan Kinyobi prefigured Litera’s concern when it wondered back in April why NHK didn’t give the Chairman Award to Kazuto Hashiguchi, who bagged the abdication scoop. By giving it to Iwata, the magazine surmised, NHK was hoping to placate Abe.

The prime minister has other dedicated apologists in broadcasting, primarily Noriyuki Yamaguchi, the Abe biographer and former Washington TBS bureau chief recently involved in allegations of rape that were not pursued by the prosecutors; and Shiro Tazaki, a commentator for Nippon TV and frequent Abe dinner guest who has been a point man for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s controversial anti-conspiracy law.

Access journalism of this kind isn’t unique to Japan. Nor is it inherently a bad thing. It becomes problematic when it’s the purpose of coverage rather than a means to get to the truth, which is why the Tokyo Shimbun recently sent Isoko Mochizuki to a news conference at the prime minister’s official residence.

Mochizuki has been a reporter with the Tokyo Shimbun since 2000, covering a wide range of subjects for the paper’s society desk. On June 8, however, the Tokyo Shimbun’s political desk dispatched her to the prime minister’s residence in place of its usual reporter to cover a regular news conference with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga.

As explained in the online magazine News Post Seven, press club scribes normally submit questions beforehand and when called upon by Suga ask at most two follow-up questions. When Mochizuki was called, she leaned into Suga about the Kake scandal, “relentlessly pursuing her line of inquiry” with 23 questions that Suga kept nervously, and unsuccessfully, dodging. The thrust of her interrogation was taken up by the next questioner, The Japan Times’ Reiji Yoshida, while the rest of the media just typed.

Mochizuki’s performance was so extraordinary that TV Asahi’s “Hodo Station” news program replayed most of it on the air that night. According to freelance journalist Tetsuo Jinbo during a discussion on Videonews.com, the Cabinet office press club told the Tokyo Shimbun to never send her again, but the desired result was achieved. The education ministry’s investigation into the Kake scandal was later reopened and produced the documents Suga had insisted didn’t exist. Even NHK obtained one and reported on it in detail.

The Tokyo Shimbun’s scheme was ingenious but not original. The Recruit revelations came about after the Asahi Shimbun sent a reporter from outside its political division — i.e., someone who didn’t have any working relationships with people in government — to investigate the politicians involved, uncovering corruption in the process. Access can be antithetical to journalism if the reporter doesn’t maintain an adversarial attitude.