If the board and management of the ABC need to firm up their ideas about the proper relationship between a public broadcaster and the government of the day they might consider what is happening in Japan.
NHK, that nation’s public broadcaster, is a $7bn enterprise largely funded from television licence fees, with a board of governors appointed by the prime minister. It exerts enormous influence through its highly rating news and information programs, but the situation in which it now finds itself––criticised for being a mouthpiece for the conservative national government––is in sharp contrast to the ABC’s predicament. In thinking about how to respond to the attacks of Tony Abbott and others, managing director Mark Scott and chairman Jim Spigelman might reflect on their Japanese cousin.
There are direct parallels. The ABC has an international service that must report on controversial issues such as the Navy’s involvement in forcing back boats of asylum seekers from Indonesia. NHK has an international service that must report on issues just as touchy, including the territorial disputes Japan has with China and South Korea.
On 25 January, at his first news conference after being appointed NHK president, Katsuto Momii (a former business executive with no background in broadcasting) was asked how the organisation should approach the subject of the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands. He replied: ‘International broadcasting will be different from domestic programs. Regarding the territorial issue, it will only be natural to clearly present Japan’s position. It would not do for us to say “left” when the government is saying “right”’. In responses to other questions, he effectively endorsed the Abe government’s position on visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, the use of ‘comfort women’ during the war and the necessity of a new state secrets law.
Though clearly embarrassed by this kowtowing performance, the government’s chief spokesman later excused Momii’s remarks on the basis that he was expressing his ‘personal views’––as if that made them irrelevant. (Former ABC chairman, Donald McDonald, while still in that position, continued his fund-raising activities for the Liberal Party according to the same logic, so there is an Australian precedent.) On Friday, summoned before a parliamentary committee, a nervous Momii heard an opposition member express the concern of some that NHK was becoming ‘the public relations department of the government’. Also last week, an economics professor quit an NHK radio program, on which he’d been a commentator for 20 years, after being told to refrain from criticising the nuclear power industry during the current Tokyo gubernatorial election. Keeping silent on the election issue, he was advised, was NHK’s way of maintaining balance.
By some accounts, the man that Momii replaced at the top of NHK, Masayuki Matsumoto, decided not to seek a second term because of complaints from within Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party that NHK gave too much prominence to critics of nuclear power and the American military bases in Japan. It must be said, however, Matsumoto’s presidency was marked by other scandals and for most of his three years the now-opposition DPJ (Democratic Party of Japan) was in office.
Nevertheless, for someone who watches NHK daily (via satellite) a change in tone and content of its news and current affairs programs has become more apparent since the Abe government returned to power. Conspicuous has been the switch from prominent coverage of anti-bases activities in Okinawa to muted and irregular coverage of this issue. For such a thing to be apparent is significant because, for as long as I can remember, NHK’s news product has been predictably middle-of-the-road. Never flamboyant or opinionated, its programs could be boring through avoidance of controversy, and thus culturally conservative, but rarely did they carry political bias on their sleeve. Now, according to Momii, the policy is: what’s right for the LDP government is right for NHK.
How this will play out with the Japanese public remains to be seen. Already one in four television owners is refusing to pay the NHK licence fee, for whatever reason. In this respect, NHK is more exposed to the public mood than the ABC, which is funded directly by parliament. It is easier for the Abbott government to punish the ABC by, for instance, taking away the Australia Network (which is funded separately through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade).
There are some within the ABC who would welcome this step. They have always felt the international service sapped resources from the corporation’s primary, domestic functions and would rather have the battle-lines with the Coalition drawn along the issue of how the ABC serves its Australian audience.
But this would be risky and shortsighted. Australia Network, if it is to project the nation’s values to the world, must be able to report without fear or favour, a core value in a society that embraces free speech. Here and now is the place to stand up and be heard. Secondly, the ABC’s critics obviously believe it is easier to make the case that the corporation has grown ‘too big’ than it is to win the ‘bias’ argument. (Donald McDonald himself took this line during a recent appearance on the ABC, though when asked for examples to prove the ABC was overstretched only mentioned seeing errors in Supers, the text that appears on screen identifying people during news items.) Chopping off the Australia Network, if achieved without great political cost, could embolden more and deeper cuts aimed at specific domestic services.
In making a defence for the role of a vigorous public broadcaster the ABC’s bosses might look down the path NHK is sliding and take heart from the alarm being raised in Japan. The ABC’s journalists and other program-makers, meanwhile, though understandably eager to rush to the barricades to counter the apparent threat from the conservative side of politics should think again. It would be much better for them and for their organisation not to treat this as a partisan cause (Labor, when in power, also wants a co-operative ABC) and avoid openly siding with critics on the left (including on Facebook). The principles of free speech and openness that form part of the fabric of our democracy are, and must remain, above party politics. If the ABC, in upholding the highest standards of professional journalism, must sometimes say ‘right’ when the government says ‘left’, then the Australian public can be relied upon to know and respect the difference.
Walter Hamilton, a former Tokyo correspondent, worked at the ABC for 33 years.