Japan’s nuclear crisis: The meltdown and the media


IT WAS billed as an historic occasion: the first independent panel of Japan’s Diet (parliament), and a rare moment of bipartisanship. On January 16th, the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC) held its first public hearing. Some 50 members of the public, and around 100 journalists, attended.

The group received the reports of other official panels. First, from a committee named by the prime minister which delivered a blistering interim report in December (as described in The Economist). Also, by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which runs the Fukushima nuclear plant—and whose report downplayed the incident. Even the ministry of education produced a report.

Yet the actual news of the day occurred following the meeting, at the start of the official press conference. After the commission’s chairman, Kiyoshi Kurokawa, gave opening remarks, a spokesperson announced the start of the question-and-answer period, and felt compelled to add: “There will be no informal press briefing after this formal press conference. So please ask your questions here.”

To outsiders, the comment may have sounded strange. What does that mean, an “informal press briefing” after the official press conference? But to those with experience watching the Japanese media interact with officialdom, the significance was unmistakable.

Japan’s media operate under a “press club” system that can lead to a form of self-censorship. News is doled out in unofficial interactions with the press. This serves many interests. For government and to a lesser extent business, it keeps the media on a tight leash and controls content. For individual journalists, it gives the veneer of exclusive information and inside access. For newspapers, it lessens the chance of being scooped by rivals, so everyone can work under less pressure.

Because no outlet can afford to get dropped from the press club, no one dares rocks the boat. And though politicians complain about the practice, it suits their interests. They pretend that the clubs are not officially sanctioned, but rather run by the journalists themselves. However that’s not strictly true. After all, ministries including the prime minister’s office, provide the press clubs with large workrooms inside their own buildings.

One of the problems of the press-club system is that it makes it harder for the media to serve as a watchdog against the most powerful institutions. The energy companies with nuclear plants were not seriously scrutinised before the Fukushima crisis (nor afterwards, the critics bellow). The lack of such scrutiny may have contributed to the environment in which safety precautions were ignored.

During the commission’s meeting itself, the most difficult questions concerned the possibility that there was earthquake damage to the reactor before the tsunami hit. It raises troubling questions whether nuclear power is safe anywhere in this seismically-active archipelago. TEPCO, as on previous occasions, provided incomplete answers, perhaps reflecting valid uncertainties—but also suggesting it is not telling the whole story.

Questions at the press conference focused more on process than on substance, since it was the commission’s first day. That the NAIIC playing host to only a single, formal press conference and not engaging in any sort of back-channel with the press does not mean that its work will be any better nor the reporting more accurate, nor does it imply any other virtue for that matter. The spokesperson’s remark was made offhandedly, as a simple point of fact, rather than as a salvo across the bow of Japan’s media practices.

Yet it represented a breath of fresh air: a small example of how an old custom is increasingly looking out of date in a new, post-Fukushima Japan.

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