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Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Japanese Journalism is Collapsing Archive #4

The State of Journalism in Japan

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The author and the writer he interviews are well-known and regarded highly in Japan. Journalists have a particularly hard time here.

by David McNeill
Freelance journalist Takashi Uesugi claims he has been blacklisted for exposing the secrets of Japan’s big media and the press-club system. A former aide to political LDP bigwig Kunio Hatoyama and researcher with The New York Times, Uesugi recorded his frustrations with reporting in Japan in his book The Collapse of Journalism (Gentosha, 2008). Here he talks exclusively to David McNeill and Number 1 Shimbun about the book and his experiences as a reporter.
Do you believe that Japanese media deviate from the conventional rules of journalism as it is practiced around the world?
Yes. One example of their uniqueness is what is called memo-awase, meaning “to share what’s in your memos.” Reporters, even among different newspaper companies, share information. After a press conference or interview with a politician, reporters form a circle, and one of them reads his or her notes out loud. The reporter who sat closest to the politician has to do the reading. Everyone there makes sure what they get on their memos is the same as the others, and tries not to miss anything. In the foreign media, sharing and exchanging information among different companies is considered to be plagiarism. The result is that since everyone has the same information, the articles read the same in every newspaper.
Here’s another example. When journalists here are scheduled to attend a press conference, they must tell the secretary of the politician, let’s say the prime minister, what exactly they are going to ask beforehand through the press club. The secretary decides which questions are OK to ask and which are not. If the secretary says, “Oh, no, you are not going ask about that, the prime minister will be angry,” then you are not going to ask that question. It allows the prime minister to prepare the answers, because he knows the questions. That’s strange, isn’t it?
One more example: You are not supposed to try to ask the same questions more than three times. At a press conference, if you ask a question that was turned down at the briefing, the prime minister will probably say: “I can’t answer that question.” That counts as two questions. If you insist on asking again, that counts as three, and you’ll get kicked out. That’s one of the hidden rules of the press clubs. What you can do is stop asking, or leave the room.
Will a media company support a reporter who insists on asking the same question? No, it won’t, because the company also says “Follow the rules.” News companies jointly organize the press-club system, so they have to stick to the rules.
You also believe that initiative is not rewarded; it’s punished.
When I was working at The New York Times, the correspondent, (Howard) French, asked me to arrange an interview with then-Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. So I did. I used to work as the secretary of a politician, so I had a connection. Mr. Obuchi says OK; then later his office calls and says I have to report to the press club when and where the interview will take place, because they need to list the prime minister’s itinerary. So I did.
I received a phone call from the press club the next day. They said they could not allow the NYT an exclusive interview with Obuchi. They urged me to cancel it. I insisted that the prime minister had said OK to the interview and that it had nothing to do with the press club, but they stood firm. I was hoping Obuchi’s office might mediate between the Times and the press club, but they were reluctant to do so, saying they didn’t want to confront the club. While the negotiations went back and forth, Obuchi suffered a stroke, and he passed away three months later. The NYT never got its interview.
This wasn’t an unusual case. Freelance writers, foreign-media correspondents and reporters for magazines and the Internet are always being hampered by fellow journalists, even when politicians want to answer their questions.
Tell us about the part that other journalists from the big media play in all this.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Financial Services Agency recently opened up to all journalists, including me. What happened at first was that both Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada and Financial Services Minister Shizuka Kamei welcomed me to attend their press conferences. However, that upset journalists in those press clubs, who demanded I be barred. So Kamei decided to have a press conference for the press club and another for non-press-club members, including freelancers and foreign correspondents. The press club dug its heels in, saying they wouldn’t allow him to use the conference room. Finally, Kamei decided to use his own room for his second press conference of the day.
Usually, journalists require politicians to be open, and to explain their actions. I’ve been in New York, Copenhagen – everywhere I’ve been has been like that. But, here in Japan, it’s really strange to see the opposite happening.
Unanimous voting is a fundamental rule in the press clubs. In the case of the Financial Services Agency, Jiji Press and the Yomiuri opposed open press conferences. The club’s decision was to never let journalists outside of the press club to join conferences. Non-members could observe, but could never ask questions. We are still fighting, and Kamei has to hold a press conference twice a day. That’s a really unusual situation.
Journalists should open up the press conferences, in the interest of disclosure and the public’s right to know. It is really problematic that press-club journalists are trying to hold onto their vested interests and are not letting fellow journalists work. It has been like this for about 50 years.
You say that South Korea used to have the same system, but has it changed?
I visited South Korea when Roh Moo-hyun was president. When Roh became president in 2003, he opened up his press conferences to Internet reporters. During the five years of his term, the whole press-club system collapsed, and all journalists were able to freely take part in press conferences. When Lee Myung Bak became president in 2008, he tried to close the conferences again, but once they had been opened, there was no way to close them again. South Korea had copied Japan’s press-club system. The reason is simple: It is convenient for politicians, as well as for government officials and bureaucrats.
Yes, there are signs of change in the press-club system in Japan, with the opening up of the Foreign and other ministries. But I still insist that the Prime Minister’s Office has to change first. The whole government has to work to change the system. At present, reporters have to sign up for each office and ministry for their pass. Each office has different rules. It would be a lot easier if the government simply issued a pass that is good for every ministry.
What changes, if any, have come with the new Democratic Party of Japan government?
The reason why I’m making such a big deal about this is because the Democratic Party of Japan opened up its press conferences in 2002, when they were the opposition. So, I asked (Ichiro) Ozawa if he would keep the conferences open after the DPJ won the election, and he promised he would, saying he’s been working to serve the public’s right to know. But then Ozawa stepped down as party president, and (Yukio) Hatoyama took over. I asked Hatoyama the same question, and he made the same promise.
On Sept. 16, the day the DPJ took office, I went to their press conference, because I thought I had been invited by the prime minister. But I couldn’t get in. I was stopped at the entrance of the kantei and waited for about 40 minutes, and finally it didn’t happen. Since that day, I have never stepped into the Prime Minister’s Office. Is it fair to say that the prime minister is OK with opening up the conferences, but that his office is blocking it? Yes, even though the prime minister (technically) has more power. The Chief Cabinet Secretary (Hirofumi Hirano) hosts conferences at the prime minister’s office. In fact, Hirano was saying that he’d open the conferences up until that day. Reporters waited, but Hirano changed his mind all of a sudden, and they were closed in the end. Freelance journalists as well as reporters for magazines and the Internet were very angry.
So the situation at the Prime Minister’s Office has not changed since September. Only the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Financial Services Ministry have changed. Is that meaningful? Yes, to some extent. Reporters for local newspapers can now ask questions. For example, reporters from the Ryukyu Shimpo or the Okinawa Times can ask about the relocation of a U.S. base in the prefecture. It seems that Foreign Minister Okada enjoys his exchanges with reporters. He says that everyone asked the same questions before, but now there are a variety of questions from various kinds of reporters. He says he is now able to examine issues from different points of view and perspectives.
For things to really change, the Prime Minister’s Office must lead. For example, at present articles in the newspapers all read the same, because reporters are afraid of writing something different from other reporters. So they share information among themselves. In the evening, reporters feel relieved when they see the same article in several newspapers.
Journalists elsewhere write articles with their own bylines and perspectives to distinguish them from the work of other reporters. But that doesn’t happen in Japan. That would be unbelievable and unacceptable in foreign journalism. So, there’s a possibility that if the prime minister’s office decides to open up, then the other Cabinet members, the ministries, government agencies and other offices will follow.
Companies and other organizations also have press clubs. The fastest way to make them all open up is for the Prime Minister’s Office to lead. Let’s say if the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications decides to abolish its club, then prefectural governments’ or city governments’ press clubs might open up, because the ministry influences local governments and administrations. Reform of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s press club might help open JR’s or Toyota’s press clubs. If the Ministry of Land and Transportation’s press club opens, that might cause JAL and ANA to open their press clubs as well.
You say in your book that journalism in Japan is collapsing, and the press clubs are to blame.
The press-club system is causing the destruction of journalism in Japan. Reporters see the press clubs as protecting their interests. Being a member is like being part of a cartel. You can just be an information receiver and don’t need to be a chaser. The system is also convenient for politicians and bureaucrats, because they can release only what they want the media to report.
In the United States, there’s what’s called the military-industrial complex. In Japan, there’s the bureaucratic-media complex. It is a relationship in which the media and the authorities strongly rely on each other, or even co-operate. At the same time, they both work to manipulate each other.
The reason why the Japanese media ignore the issue of press clubs is because they risk embarrassing themselves. There are also some issues that the Japanese media view as taboo, such as the imperial family. Journalists sometimes ask the foreign media to take up these issues instead of writing for themselves. It is much easier to quote someone, especially from the foreign media. ❶
Yoshiko Nakata contributed to this article
Posted by Wayne Hunter on Wed, 2010-03-17 21:09
Filed under: Features
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