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Sunday, May 15, 2005

MEDIA MIX

The great corporate escape: Blame it on the factotums and avoid responsibility


The news media's breathless coverage of the train derailment in Amagasaki that claimed 107 lives last month operated on several levels. On one level was an investigation into the details of the accident itself. On another was the coverage of victims and their families. And on a third was the gradual revelation of the corporate culture that eventually stood as the main cause of the tragedy.

The "human drama" of the second level, the victims' stories and their families' grief, has little lasting value. Whenever such tragedies occur, the media takes upon itself the role of national designated mourner, allowing victims to vent their anger and sorrow in public, though many don't want to. The same handful of friends and relatives tended to appear on all the network news shows.

However, the feelings unleashed by these reports fed directly into the third level of coverage, which had to do with JR West's responsibility, and were most apparent following TV Asahi's scoop that a group of conductors went bowling three hours after the accident occurred. The Asahi report was broadcast while JR West was conducting a press conference, and reporters alerted to the revelation immediately pounced on railroad officials.

After that, the media was set on exposing the railway company's negligence and perceived heartlessness. One of the ironies of the tragedy is that -- thanks to the coverage -- the public knew more about the accident from moment to moment than did the average JR West employee or, for that matter, the average JR West executive. On its morning wide show, for instance, TBS has gone over what happened in breathtaking detail, comparing the particulars of the incident and its aftermath with official announcements made by JR West at the time.

The railway did not even admit that there had been a train derailment until more than two hours after it occurred at 9:18 a.m.

JR West's initial reports had the Fukuchiyama Line train hitting an automobile, and even at the time when the conductors supposedly left for their bowling jaunt the company had not acknowledged the seriousness of the accident. While media helicopters surveyed the wreckage and the local police started tallying deaths, JR West continued to say that service would resume by noon.

Consequently, if the employees who bowled or participated in other company outings -- JR West admitted that 18 such "inappropriate gatherings" took place -- weren't aware of the full scale of the accident, it was because JR West does not have a system to inform them. The purpose of in-company announcements is to expedite operations. There's nothing in the manual about telling employees the nature or seriousness of an accident, only how the accident affects their work situation.

And while the employees who participated in these gatherings were technically "off-duty," that didn't let them off the hook. Many obviously knew about the accident and partied on regardless. What this supposed callousness really clarifies is JR West's dysfunctional culture, which, since the Japan National Railways were privatized in the 1980s, has become that of a corporation which stresses profits at the expense of safety.

The institutional nature of JR West's negligence of safety considerations has been apparent for years. In May 1991, 42 people were killed when a JR West train collided head-on with a Shigaraki Kogen Railway train in Shiga Prefecture. For a decade, JR West denied responsibility for the accident, saying that it was SKR's fault. Not until it lost a civil suit over the accident in 2002 did JR West admit that it failed to inform SKR before the day of the tragedy that it was going to operate a special train for a local festival on a stretch of track it sometimes shared with SKR.

TBS cited this incident as evidence that nothing has changed since 1991, that JR West did not learn from its mistakes and instead entered into a siege mentality: Don't apologize, don't admit responsibility, don't reveal anything. On the day of the Amagasaki accident, the company instinctively tried to stonewall, hinting that someone may have caused the derailment by placing stones on the tracks, but the media was already ahead of the story, looking into the train's speed and the driver's actions.

All the experts interviewed by the media have essentially said the same thing: Accidents are valuable because they teach you things. The most dangerous aspect of JR West's corporate culture is its tendency to personalize mistakes, since as a result the company learns nothing from them. The driver of the doomed train apparently was punished for mistakes once before, and the fear of being caught running late spurred him to make up for lost time. Interviews with past and present JR West employees reveal that those who err are humiliated rather than shown how to avoid similar mistakes in the future. Though it is supposed to be an outdated idea, the top brass still believe that all mistakes can be blamed on individuals, and once an individual pays for the mistake the group is exonerated.

In this regard, the most valuable part of the media's coverage was its investigation into the accident itself and the immediate causes. The investigation into the corporate culture that set the stage for the accident is also valuable, though the emotional quality of the reporting has had some negative fallout. Since the accident there has been more than 150 reported incidents of people insulting or attacking JR West employees.

If the railway implements real changes that guarantee better safety, then the media will have done its job, but at this point JR West hasn't announced anything concrete in terms of corporate policy. If they fail to change, then the media will have failed as well.



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