Anchors away – Criticism of government is being airbrushed out of news shows
Feb 20th 2016 Economist
For a decade, millions of Japanese have tuned in to watch Ichiro Furutachi, the salty presenter of a popular evening news show, TV Asahi’s “Hodo Station”. But next month Mr Furutachi will be gone. He is one of three heavyweight presenters leaving prime-time shows on relatively liberal channels. It is no coincidence that all are, by Japanese standards, robust critics of the government.
Last year another anchor, Shigetada Kishii, used his news slot on TBS, a rival channel, to question the legality of bills passed to expand the nation’s military role overseas. The questioning was nothing less than what most constitutional scholars were also doing—and in private senior officials themselves acknowledge the unconstitutionality of the legislation, even as they justify it on the ground that Japan is in a risky neighbourhood and needs better security. But Mr Kishii’s on-air fulminations prompted a group of conservatives to take out newspaper advertisements accusing him of violating broadcasters’ mandated impartiality. TBS now says he will quit. The company denies this has anything to do with the adverts, but few believe that.
The third case is at NHK, the country’s giant public-service broadcaster. It has yanked one of its more popular anchors off the air. Hiroko Kuniya has helmed an investigative programme, “Close-up Gendai”, for two decades. NHK has not said why she is leaving, but colleagues blame her departure on an interview last year with Yoshihide Suga, the government’s top spokesman and closest adviser to Shinzo Abe, the prime minister.
Mr Suga is known for running a tight ship and for demanding advance notice of questions from journalists. In the interview Ms Kuniya had the temerity to probe him on the possibility that the new security legislation might embroil Japan in other countries’ wars. By the standards of spittle-flecked clashes with politicians on British or American television, the encounter was tame. But Japanese television journalists rarely play hardball with politicians. Mr Suga’s handlers were incensed.
It all shows how little tolerance the government has for criticism, says Makoto Sataka, a commentator and colleague of Mr Kishii’s. He points out that one of Mr Abe’s first moves after he returned to power in 2012 was to appoint conservative allies to NHK’s board. Katsuto Momii, the broadcaster’s new president, wasted little time in asserting that NHK’s role was to reflect government policy. What is unprecedented today, says Shigeaki Koga, a former bureaucrat turned talking head, is the growing public intimidation of journalists. On February 9th the communications minister, Sanae Takaichi, threatened to close television stations that flouted rules on political impartiality. Ms Takaichi was responding to a question about the departure of the three anchors.
Political pressure on the press is not new. The mainstream media (the five main newspapers are affiliated with the principal private television stations) are rarely analytical or adversarial, being temperamentally and commercially inclined to reflect the establishment view. Indeed the chumminess is extreme. In January Mr Abe again dined with the country’s top media executives at the offices of the Yomiuri Shimbun, the world’s biggest-circulation newspaper. Nine years ago, when Mr Abe resigned from his first term as prime minister, the paper’s kingpin, Tsuneo Watanabe, brokered the appointment of his successor, Yasuo Fukuda. Mr Watanabe then attempted to forge a coalition between ruling party and opposition. Oh, but his paper forgot to alert readers to all these goings-on. The media today, says Michael Cucek of Temple University in Tokyo, has “no concept of conflict of interest.”
It has all contributed to an alarming slide since 2011 in Japan’s standing in world rankings of media freedom. Mr Koga expects a further fall this year. He ran afoul of the government during his stint as a caustic anti-Abe commentator on “Hodo Station”. On air last year he claimed that his contract was being terminated because of pressure from the prime minister’s office. His aim, Mr Koga insists, was to rally the media against government interference. Yet TV Asahi apologised and promised tighter controls over guests. Now Mr Furutachi is quitting too. The government is playing chicken with the media, Mr Furutachi says, and winning.