Two recent incidents have revealed the cozy relationship between government and the media in Japan. One is the appointment of a former Yomiuri Shimbun chief editorialist as a member of the National Public Safety Commission. The other is the fact that a member of the Cabinet press club wrote a memo for Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori advising him on how to dodge sensitive questions at a press conference. Whether Mori actually read the memo is anybody’s guess.
Regarding the first incident, which was reported June 1 in an Asahi Shimbun column, the writer said a series of police scandals, including those involving the Niigata prefectural police, have proved that the commission’s oversight functions are “paralyzed.” The columnist quoted a Yomiuri Shimbun editorial as saying: “The commissioners are appointed by the prime minister, but they are selected by the police. Generally, theirs is an honorary position.”
The post in question was previously held by an adviser to the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, who retired at the end of his term. Reports say that the commission meets once a week, yet its members draw an annual salary of 26 million yen each, and that they toe the police line. The ruling and opposition parties were split over the appointment, which was subject to parliamentary approval.
Earlier this month, a panel of government-appointed advisers issued a blueprint for police reform. The panel is chaired by the president of NTV, a Yomiuri Shimbun affiliate. A former Yomiuri Shimbun managing director, the chairman is also an auditor to the daily. It is difficult to understand why the National Police Agency placed a key member of an affiliated media organization on both the reform panel and the police commission, a target of reform. One wonders whether the NPA was trying to take advantage of a pro-establishment media group.
A Yomiuri Shimbun editorial on the reform blueprint was in sharp contrast to an Asahi Shimbun leader on the same topic. The former made bland, general comments on the report, whereas the latter severely criticized it as lacking punch. The mild tone of the Yomiuri editorial seems to reflect the fact that the panel is headed by a member of “the family.”
Meanwhile, the controversial memo was exposed June 2 by a Nishi-Nippon Shimbun reporter who found it in the press club. The note, which was also taken up by other dailies and weeklies, was written the day before Prime Minister Mori was to give a press conference on his verbal gaffe that “Japan is a nation of gods with the Emperor at its center.” Shukan Asahi weekly suggested that the writer was probably a reporter from a major network.
It is, of course, a serious violation of the press code to advise a prime minister on how to conduct a press conference, just as fixing matches is a serious violation of sporting rules. A media organization that tries to lead readers and viewers in a direction favorable to politicians is nothing but a pawn of politics. Clearly this is a breach of press ethics.
Reporters on the political beat need to do a lot of soul-searching. For years they have been the object of public suspicion because of their cozy ties with politicians. For example, they often make late-night and early-morning visits to politicians’ residences. Such covert ways of gathering information can be effective, but at the same time reporters can develop intimate and questionable relations with politicians.
In 1992, when a securities-industry watchdog commission was created, a former NHK commentator was appointed as one of its three members. Afterward, he became an auditor to Japan Tobacco, a monopoly in which the Finance Ministry holds a large equity stake. His predecessor is also a former NHK commentator.
The Tobacco Industries Council, an advisory panel to the Finance Ministry, also has a one-time NHK commentator among its members. In light of NHK’s high social standing, it seems, the ministry thinks that having an old NHK hand on the panel helps contain the growing public criticism of the Tobacco business.
The U.S. tobacco industry faces an unprecedented crisis amid a spate of damages suits. Here in Japan, a similar suit has been filed against Japan Tobacco. With a former NHK commentator serving as a JT auditor, many citizens will question whether the network can provide neutral, fair reporting and commentary on tobacco-related issues?
It is also problematic that mass-circulation dailies as well as NHK are also represented on various government councils. The media here criticize these councils as “fronts” for the government, yet major media organizations — except for the Asahi Shimbun and a few others — actively participate in these advisory panels.
Some councils should include media representatives, but it depends on the nature and content of discussions. A case in point is the Council on the National Language, which reports to the Agency for Cultural Affairs. In principle, however, the media should keep a distance from government panels dealing with major political and social issues. Impartiality is essential to freedom of the press.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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