On July 25, the Japan Federation of Commercial Broadcast Workers’ Unions (Minpororen) confirmed that TV Asahi Corp. had left the organization. Strictly speaking, it was the company’s labor union that quit Minpororen, though in Japan the distance between labor and management is smaller than it is in many other countries since labor unions in Japan tend to be company-based.

TV Asahi’s reasons for leaving are not crystal clear, but some media have theories, including the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun, which suggested it was ostensibly about money. Minpororen is part of a larger labor federation called MIC Union, which protects the interests of workers in “mass media, information and culture,” including publishing and advertising. Members pay union dues to Minpororen, and TV Asahi’s labor union is one of the biggest in the industry. Minpororen derives about 15 percent of its annual revenue from the station.

According to Shukan Bunshun’s sources, suspicions arose within TV Asahi last year that someone on the union’s executive committee was embezzling money, which led to an internal investigation. Attention centered on a member who was fired in December of last year after taking a month off without permission. This person subsequently went to Minpororen and claimed he had been dismissed unfairly. TV Asahi told Shukan Bunshun that the missing money had nothing to do with the station’s decision to leave Minpororen, but nevertheless they thought they were paying too much to the federation, whose policies, they say, including how their money is spent, differ from TV Asahi’s.

At the end of the article, Shukan Bunshun hints that the matter goes deeper. Some of the staff of TV Asahi’s flagship news program, “Hodo Station,” are not regular employees, but rather contract employees, and they have worked for the show for many years. “Hodo Station” used to be “News Station,” the groundbreaking nightly news show launched in 1985 that transformed broadcast news in Japan with a more confrontational journalistic style.

In December, it was announced that contracts for these “Hodo Station” staff would not be renewed. Management promised to find new positions for them, but eventually that job fell to MIC. In the process, MIC contacted TV Asahi’s sponsors to complain about the “Hodo Station” staff’s treatment, a move that offended TV Asahi management, which then had its labor union leave Minpororen.

In a July 31 Yahoo News story, freelance reporter Rei Shiva covered some of the same ground as Shukan Bunshun but in more detail. Shiva claims MIC contacted TV Asahi’s sponsors because TV Asahi had said it would help the laid off staff members of “Hodo Station” find new jobs but, in fact, did nothing. TV Asahi was reportedly afraid that other media would find out about MIC’s move, which would put pressure on its sponsors, and so demanded that its labor union quit Minpororen, which is under the umbrella of MIC. When asked about this, the TV Asahi labor union told Shiva it was about policy differences and money issues, but insiders say it was about TV Asahi’s beef with MIC. TV Asahi’s publicity department told Shiva that, in the wake of the staff renewal, TV Asahi would revamp “Hodo Station.”

Shiva found connections between this scenario and a sexual harassment scandal at TV Asahi last year. An in-house investigation revealed that female employees had for some time been complaining about the chief producer of “Hodo Station,” a regular employee at TV Asahi, saying he had sexually harassed them. Some staff leaked particulars to the press, which covered the scandal. Shiva says the eventual overhaul of “Hodo Station,” which entailed the letting go of its veteran contract staff, is being carried out as a result of the investigation. Sources within TV Asahi told him the “Hodo Station” workers were being scapegoated for the leaks so that the program could be completely remade. TV Asahi management has never been comfortable with the journalism on “Hodo Station.” Shiva suggests the chairman and CEO of TV Asahi thinks the show is too critical of the government. In any case, the producer accused of sexual harassment was not fired, but transferred to another part of the company after a brief suspension.

The ramifications of the changes happening at TV Asahi are not lost on journalists. In his Nikkan Gendai column of Aug. 12, Yoichiro Tateiwa, a former reporter for public broadcaster NHK, despaired that television as a medium would soon abandon real news reporting due to the nature of labor-management relations in the industry. This was made apparent by the new leader of Minpororen, Morimasa Takagi, who said on July 25 in reference to the TV Asahi matter that he wanted to encourage friendlier relations between labor and management at commercial stations. Since Minpororen is a federation of company-based labor unions, its mission is to help workers and management get along with each other. MIC, however, is an industry-wide labor union whose mission is to look out for workers’ interests. These two goals are not necessarily the same, and when the laborers are journalists and news program workers, they can be in conflict.

This seems to be what Tateiwa is talking about. When the general secretary of MIC, Asahi Shimbun reporter and president of the Japan Federation of Newspaper Workers’ Union, Akira Minami, endeavored to make a case for the laid-off “Hodo Station” staff to TV Asahi’s sponsors, he probably knew he would anger TV Asahi management. As far as Minami is concerned, though, that is his job. Tateiwa understands this position. When he worked at NHK, he was part of its labor union’s executive committee and once tried to organize a symposium to discuss internal politics at the company, which operates with the approval of the government. However, the union refused, saying that defending the livelihoods of its workers, presumably by placating management, was more important than the “stance” of NHK’s news content. As a result, says Tateiwa, NHK’s news reporting became “toothless.” NHK, he says, just regurgitates government statements and positions. In effect, Tateiwa now sees commercial broadcast news departments also turning into mouthpieces of the authorities, if they haven’t already.

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