On Wednesday 7 August 2013, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe acknowledged that the clean up of the devastated Fukushima nuclear power reactors was beyond the capacity of the operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). It followed the revelation that heavily contaminated groundwater is flowing into the Pacific Ocean at an estimated rate of 300 tonnes a day because of the failure of a perimeter barrier installed by TEPCO. By any measure this was a major news story. So where did it run in that night’s one hour, mid-evening news on the national broadcaster NHK? Buried 40 minutes down in the program as a brief RVO (reader voiceover). Had the story broken a year ago, during the tenure of the former government, I have no doubt it would have led the program – accompanied by complaints of incompetence. If there had been any doubt that Abe was receiving a dream run from Japan’s mainstream media, this episode laid it to rest.
For six months or more the government ignored calls for it to take over management of the nuclear crisis from a secretive and bumbling TEPCO. Abe did nothing, unwilling to infringe on the prerogatives of a private enterprise. The delay deserved to be marked down as a failure of leadership, and yet NHK’s story offered no such analysis. Nor did it contain the information – available on the New York Times and BBC websites – that taxpayers will pick up the estimated US$400 million dollar tab for a new containment strategy. Reportedly the plan envisages freezing the ground around the crippled reactors to a depth of 30 metres. Some commentators suggest the government has been reluctant to take over control for fear of being blamed should the unproven strategy fail to hold back the radioactive groundwater. (One assumes some of these details were aired in other NHK news broadcasts; my focus is on how this story was presented in its prestigious News Watch 9 program on the day in question.)
The uncritical coverage NHK and others are giving to decisions by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party government contrasts with the media’s hostile treatment of the former centre-left administration led by the Democratic Party of Japan. The nuclear issue is just one example. Another is the issue of the controversial deployment of Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft by the US Marines on Okinawa. When the deployment began in July last year Japanese media outlets, including NHK, suggested that public safety and national sovereignty were being sacrificed to the US-Japan alliance. Night after night, NHK television bulletins devoted extensive coverage to anti-government protests. In recent weeks the number of Ospreys deployed on Okinawa was doubled, while on Monday the crash of a helicopter from the Kadena Air Base further underlined the safety concerns of residents of the heavily militarized islands. And yet NHK’s coverage of both developments was subdued and matter-of-fact, particularly in comparison with its coverage of the same issue during the time of the Noda government.
Why the change in temper?
When the DPJ came to power in 2009 one of its first acts was to end the LDP’s preferred method of governing through background briefings to a coterie of captive journalists. This attack on the kisha club system – under which media outlets attach journalists to ministries in return for exclusive access to information – threatened the drip feed media organisations relied upon. Once-privileged journalists now had to take their chances in the open forum of televised news conferences. They hated it – and seemed bent on revenge. Some proved incapable of adjusting to the fact there had been a change of government and continued to treat the LDP as if it were the ruling party.
As time went by, particularly after the earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku, simmering resentment built to a wave of criticism against Prime Minister Naoto Kan and his successor Yoshihiko Noda. While the DPJ government undoubtedly contributed to its loss of popular support, the media played a big hand in it. Conspicuous in this campaign was the mass circulation Yomiuri newspaper (one of the main backers of Abe’s plans for constitutional change). Journalists conveniently overlooked that the nuclear crisis was due, in large part, to a flawed safety and regulatory regime put in place by the LDP. The commercial television networks clamored to outdo each other in pillorying the government. During a March 2011 news conference by Prime Minister Kan, audiences of Fuji-TV’s broadcast heard background voices mocking the proceedings: ‘The nuclear story again, you’ve got to be kidding’, ‘Now I can start laughing’. (This insight into the mentality of some in the profession is no longer viewable on YouTube: Fuji-TV has had it removed ‘for copyright reasons’.)
Back at NHK, if Fukushima wasn’t the big story last Wednesday night, what was? A summer heat wave and the price of petrol led News Watch 9. The story immediately preceding the brief mention of Fukushima was a long item about the recovery of Japanese flags and other military paraphernalia taken from Pacific battlefields by American soldiers during the Second World War. Honoring the country’s war dead and comforting bereaved families are worthy causes, but they hardly rank above a current and out-of-control nuclear accident.
Walter Hamilton reported from Japan for the ABC for 11 years.