WALTER HAMILTON. Fake news triumphant

Japan’s Shinzo Abe, US President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have a great deal in common, particularly their aversion to being exposed to a free press. 

In his first interview after returning to Japan from the United States, Prime Minister Abe was asked for his impressions of Donald Trump. ‘Very frank and open’ was the verdict. He immediately drew a comparison to Vladimir Putin: they were leaders he could deal with because they spoke clearly and candidly. Abe went on to argue that it was important to engage with Putin so that Russia could fully contribute to the resolution of international problems.

It was striking, listening to Abe, how a question about Trump turned into an answer about Putin. The obvious conclusion: his Putin-friendly stance was a key take-out from his talks with Trump.

There was no follow-up question on this point by the three persons conducting Monday night’s interview on NHK, the national broadcaster. They stuck faithfully to the script––literally. Interviews with the Japanese leader are carefully scripted: questions submitted ahead of time and written answers prepared. Sometimes Abe simply reads from the answer provided by some faceless official, as he did at least once during this ‘interview’.

(Apart from being notoriously thin-skinned, Abe and Trump both have difficulty when communicating unassisted. Trump-isms, like ‘bigly’, highlight not only a shaky vocabulary but also his limited comprehension and knowledge. The blue-blooded Abe sometimes has difficulty reading even simple kanji, the ideograms used in written Japanese, with the result that officials need to add notations to guide him through a text.)

NHK’s news division, for all intents and purposes, has become part of the Abe administration’s public relations machine. It is a chilling phenomenon. Censorship and manipulation of information has reached a point I have not witnessed in 38 years’ close observation of the Japanese media.

The low point of Monday’s event came when the panel, dropping any pretence of wanting to pursue matters of substance, produced a graphic highlighting the results of a new NHK opinion poll that showed the Abe Cabinet’s approval rating was up by three points to 58%. Not only was the national broadcaster part of Abe’s public relations effort, it chose to demonstrate how successful this was proving to be.

Through intimidation, the freezing out of critical voices, playing favourites, controlling access, the wining and dining of editors, new secrecy laws and, most blatantly, by turning NHK into a government mouthpiece, much of Japan’s mainstream news media is now in thrall to the Abe administration. It is a closed circle: uncritical coverage lifts Abe’s popularity rating and his rising popularity further stifles criticism.

The point that Japan has reached today is where the Trump administration apparently would like America to be tomorrow.

Already we are witnessing, during Sean Spicer’s daily briefings, the established White House press corps––the big media organisations with a track record for independence and the resources to undertake deep research–– being pushed aside in favour of fringe players, often from the far right.

Spicer and co. can learn a lot from the Japanese, past masters of the choreographed ‘news conference’.

During his recent swing through the Asia-Pacific region, Prime Minister Abe held off engaging with the media until he reached the safe shores of Vietnam where tough questions are rarely put to powerful people. The event was a sham: a long prepared statement and a trickle of questions to which Abe responded, in several cases, by reading his prepared answers.

During their joint press conference in Washington on Friday, Abe and Trump performed a duet of ideologically inspired media screening. Trump ‘opened the floor’ to questions with the jibe: ‘We’ll take a few questions, unless you [the media] don’t want to ask any questions; if that’s possible.’

Trump then selected the first questioner by name, a reporter from the Murdoch tabloid noted for its conservative bias, the New York Post. The part of his question directed to Abe, concerning the ill-fated Trans-Pacific Partnership, was simply ignored by the prime minister. Trump next selected a reporter from Murdoch’s Fox News, who invited the president to ventilate on his favourite subject, border security. A second attempt to get Abe to comment on Trump’s decision to dump the TPP was again ignored.

Abe then had two picks from the floor. He first singled out an NHK reporter, who asked about the automotive industry and currency markets. Abe read from prepared notes when giving his answer.

Trump (who had nodded sagely during Abe’s initial remarks despite not understanding a word­­­––he forgot to use the earphones to hear the translations) then strayed off script by trying to call a premature end to proceedings. But a somewhat frantic Abe insisted on sticking to the roster and called on another tame reporter from the Sankei Shimbun, a right-wing daily newspaper, who asked Trump about China’s ‘hardline’ position and the ‘increasing threat’ from North Korea. But Trump’s concentration had been broken and, during a rambling and vacuous response, he failed to take the bait.

Set-piece news conferences are rarely venues for meaningful interrogations, but this one approached the level of farce.

‘Fake news’ is the phrase du jour. Many people take it to mean the fabrication of a story that is then passed off as news. But the process is far more insidious. The whole business of legitimate news gathering is being corrupted and falsified by leaders like Abe, Trump and Putin who cannot tolerate criticism and will try by all means to prevent the public at large being kept fully informed.

Walter Hamilton is a former foreign correspondent.

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John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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