The Committee for the Investigation of Broadcasting Ethics, part of the Broadcasting Ethics & Program Improvement Organisation (BPO), has caused a stir with its opinion, issued on Nov. 6, in which BPO criticised the responses by the Liberal Democratic Party and the government to issues involving NHK's "Close-Up Gendai" current affairs programme.
The BPO is a third-party organisation jointly established by NHK and the Japan Commercial Broadcasters Association in July 2003. It is comprised of the Broadcast and Human Rights/Other Related Rights Committee and the Broadcast Committee for Youth Programming, which have been in place from the outset, and the Committee for the Investigation of Broadcasting Ethics, established in 2007.
The Committee for the Investigation of Broadcasting Ethics deliberates and holds inquiries when a programme is suspected of violating broadcasting ethics or broadcasting false information.
On this occasion, the investigation committee deliberated on issues related to NHK's "Close-Up Gendai" and issued an opinion stating there was "a grave violation of broadcasting ethics." The part of the ruling that has drawn repercussions is the criticism leveled at the LDP and the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry for their responses to the programme.
On April 17 this year, the LDP summoned NHK management to meet with the party's Research Commission on Info-Communications Strategy and conducted a hearing into the programme's content. On the same day that NHK published its own investigative report, April 28, the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry sent a severe reprimand to NHK in the name of the minister, demanding that the incident not be repeated.
The investigation committee determined that the LDP had no right to summon the broadcaster to its research commission, and that this constituted "pressure by the ruling party on broadcasting freedom and on the autonomy which sustains it," concluding that "this should be strongly condemned."
After stating that the communications ministry had "respected the structures and track record of broadcasting freedom and autonomy, issuing no administrative guidance on the grounds of programme content since June 2009," the investigation committee went on to assert, "The severe reprimand from the internal affairs and communications minister, without respect for historical precedent, was extremely regrettable."
The response to the investigation committee's first written criticism of the ruling party or government was as swift as might have been expected.
Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Sanae Takaichi released her comment on the same day. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said, "The determination [of the investigation committee] is inaccurate" at a press conference on Nov. 9.
LDP Secretary General Sadakazu Tanigaki said, also on Nov. 9, "I don't think it's a good idea to keep silent regarding such a performance."
One factor behind the inclusion of such views in the investigation committee's opinion was the BPO's conviction that as the self-regulatory body for the broadcasting industry, it should be the organisation handing down strict rulings to broadcasters. Since its foundation in 2007, it has publicly issued 21 opinions and recommendations.
Just as Hiroshi Inoue, chairman of the Japan Commercial Broadcasters Association, said at the annual convention on Nov. 10, "Broadcasting operators hold the judgments of BPO's committees in high regard, taking them very seriously."
At present, then, it can be said that the system is functioning. In fact, the opinion issued to NHK was far harsher than the broadcaster's own investigative report.
Taking the above into account, the actions of the LDP in summoning NHK management without clear legal authority lie wide open to criticism. The Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry does have the right to hear about the situation from the broadcaster's side when a problem occurs. NHK's ethics violation was particularly egregious in this case.
However, bearing in mind the great importance of freedom of expression, the ministry should surely have left the resolution of the issue up to the broadcasting industry's own ability to self-regulate and, while keeping an eye on developments, considered when and how to properly exercise its authority.
In any case, this debate was provoked by the NHK programme, which the opinion sharply criticised for "conveying a large quantity of information that was significantly divergent from the actual situation, lacking accuracy."
To defend freedom of expression and broadcasting autonomy, broadcasters need to take to heart the importance of producing programs that are free from fraud and distortion of the truth.