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Sunday, June 20, 2010

MEDIA MIX

Government policy of cash gifts to journalists rolls on


In late April, about a month before Naoto Kan took over as prime minister from Yukio Hatoyama, a hand-written note was taped to the intercom outside Kan's home in the Kichijoji district of Tokyo. It read, "No press meetings," and was signed "Kan," but it wasn't written by the current Democratic Party of Japan head. It was written by his wife, Nobuko, who, according to the weekly magazine Shukan Shincho, was angry because a reporter leaked to a colleague an off-the-record comment her husband made while drunk.

News photo
Iron lady: Nobuko Kan, wife of Prime Minister Naoto Kan, posted a note outside their Tokyo home reading "No press meetings." KYODO PHOTO

In order to appreciate the comment, "(Ichiro) Ozawa is a leaf," you probably had to be there, but the note's implication, that reporters regularly hung out at Kan's house drinking and discussing politics, has a deeper meaning in light of comments recently made by retired Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Hiromu Nonaka, who was chief Cabinet secretary for Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi from July 1998 to Oct. 1999.

During a speech he gave in Nara on April 23 Nonaka discussed the controversial kanbo hoshohi (secretariat rewards), more commonly referred to as kimitsuhi (secret funds). This money, which the most recent budget set at ¥1.46 billion, is not subject to scrutiny or audit. The chief Cabinet secretary, who controls it, doesn't even have to get receipts. It's for him to spend as he sees fit.

Nonaka said that while he was chief Cabinet secretary large sums of money from the fund "were brought" to prominent political commentators during the mid-summer and end-of-year gift seasons. He did not name any of these commentators, though he did say that veteran journalist Soichiro Tahara returned his gift.

Major media reported this potential bombshell, but outside of the weekly magazines only Tokyo Shimbun investigated further. The newspaper discovered an article from 2000 in the now defunct weekly Focus that featured a confidential government memo with the names of commentators compiled into a list and accompanied by figures that could be monetary amounts.

Tokyo Shimbun called the commentators on the list, even though, as the unnamed editor of the article put it, "it was a rude thing to do." The few who agreed to talk denied receiving money from the secret fund, but some admitted they received "lecture fees" or "manuscript fees" for specific work they did at the request of the government.

One veteran pundit, Hisayuki Miyake, commented, "It's easy to say that people should turn that money down, but then the relationship you have with people in power will surely deteriorate."

So while Miyake told Tokyo Shimbun that he "didn't receive any money from the kimitsuhi, he believes that newspeople have to cultivate close relationships with politicians and bureaucrats, and if you refuse their rewards, you risk losing them. Another commentator, Kotaro Tawara, said that in the old days it was "common sense" to receive money, and though he never took any himself, he compares the practice to critics who receive free books or theater tickets for review purposes. "It's just the way society operates."

Tokyo Shimbun also called Soichiro Tahara, who confirmed that he had indeed once received a gift box of tea from Nonaka's office, but that when he discovered it also contained an envelope of cash, he returned it. When asked if he thought other journalists also received funds, he practically tied himself in knots trying to sound vague: "I couldn't really say whether or not it didn't happen."

This symbiotic relationship is cultivated and maintained by the press-club system and the kind of off-record "meetings" that Mrs. Kan decided her husband should avoid from now on. And while one could see the advantages such an arrangement offers the media, it seems to offer bigger advantages to the government. In an article in Shukan Kinyobi, journalist Ryusaka Tanaka outlined the practice known as yomawari, or "night beat." Reporters regularly drink and have off-the-record bull sessions with the politicians and bureaucrats they cover, then return to their offices and write up their notes. They give these notes to their editors who then forward them to the chief Cabinet secretary. In this way, the government knows who is talking to whom about what and thus can manage problems more readily. In return, the major media get access to sources.

Because of the nature of the system, these sources are always anonymous. This system explains how whenever a scandal breaks, every major media outlet seems to have all the information at their fingertips immediately. The only reason they start reporting it is because a person or faction in the government with an ax to grind or some other motive has basically given them permission to do so.

Journalist Takeo Saito told Tokyo Shimbun that, especially since the start of ex-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's administration, journalism has become "public relations for the powerful," and not necessarily because the government is paying them. "It's just easier for reporters to do their job when they're close to politicians," Saito said.

It's also more difficult to do their jobs when they seem to be bucking this system. Why did the editor of Tokyo Shimbun think it "rude" to carry out his journalistic responsibilities and ask those commentators whether or not they had received the cash? Why should Tahara be characterized as a hero for not accepting money? Isn't that expected of reporters?

More significantly, why did Nonaka make these revelations at this particular moment? In various interviews he has hinted that he feels guilty about the practice and hoped that if it were brought to light the new government would "fix some bad habits." Not likely. Except for Tokyo Shimbun, the major media have avoided the topic and the new chief Cabinet secretary, Yoshito Sengoku, reiterated that use of the kanbo hoshohi will remain secret. Why ruin such a beautiful relationship?



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