News-riggers have no right to bash bid-riggers

Thursday, February 23 2006 @ 12:37 AM JST

Contributed by: Y.Yamamoto

On February 20, the Daily Yomiuri ran an English translation of the editorial published on the same day by its parent daily, the Yomiuri Shimbun. It was unabashedly titled "Newspapers' status should be respected".

The first paragraphs read like this:

"The important role to be played by newspapers in maintaining and promoting the culture of the printed word deserves attention.

"The Fair Trade Commission has started reviewing its own designation of several categories of products and services, including newspapers, as exceptions to the application of the Antimonopoly Law. The FTC has said it will form a conclusion on the issue by the end of June.

"If the exception granted to newspapers is forfeited or limited, it could spark an intense competition among newspaper publishers for a greater share of the market. That could also fundamentally shake the newspaper industry's home delivery system, which enables anyone to buy the same newspaper at the same price anywhere in the nation.

"The Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association opposes an expected change in the the (sic) special status given to newspapers, citing the need to preserve the home delivery system as a means of steadily distributing newspapers to readers and protecting the freedom of speech."

Give me a break, Yomiuri editors. These days a cutthroat competition is being fought for greater market shares in every industry and everyday. What on earth makes you think newspaper publishers, alone, are entitled to the exempt status? Your answer will be that unlike others, you are in a position to "promote the culture of the printed word" and to "protect freedom of speech". Then tell us where to find a culture, or freedom of speech, in this morbid nation. It's none other than you guys in the JNPEA that have ruined what little culture and FOS we may have once had in the last 116 years.

To support their bosses at the editorial desk, the Yomiuri news desk ran a frontpage story in the same issue, without giving a byline as usual. The headline read "84% support standard prices for newspapers". I am not sure if the Yomiuri actually conducted the survey on 3,000 adults and if the "overwhelming" 84% figure wasn't just a fabrication. But I wouldn't be surprised if the Japan's leading daily was uncharacteristically telling the truth. After all, an astounding 10,158,940 people (as of Nov. 2004) are subscribing to it and willingly paying 3,925 yen/month for the daily rubbish.

In fact they are just turning to the same old modus operandi when they argue the possible abolition of standard prices and other practices of oligopoly would endanger FOS. This is something I call a "decoy issue". Actually what they desperately try to defend is their vested interest which as Laurie Anne Freeman points out, rests on the mechanism to cartelize the information, certainly not on the price cartel. But as long as the JNPEA maintains a cozy relations with the FTC, an organization attached to the Cabinet Office, through the kisha kurabu (press club) housed in the premises of the antimonopoly watchdog, the Yomiuri, or any other media organization, doesn't have to fret about losing the 116-year-old privilege. Yet, they must have some good reasons to fear, one of them being independent opinion journalism barely budding on the Web here.

Most domestic news are sourced from government agencies exclusively through respective press clubs in this country. Some put the ratio in the neighborhood of 90% on an educated guess basis. That's why Japanese readerships and audiences are fed, day in, day out, with "standardized, homogenized, and sanitized version" (Freeman) of news stories.

One telling evidence of the social milieu resulting from all this is the weird thing called "kyuukan-bi", or newspaper holidays. Every year we have ten of them across the board on an implausible pretext that newspaper delivery "boys" deserve them. (Sports dailies and tabloids are exceptions.) Of course they do, but don't these girls working at McDonald's deserve some, as well, no matter how many holidays the Labor Standards Law requires employers to give their employees?

The truth about newspaper holidays is that in this nation, the news can wait an extra 24 hours thanks to the funny practice called "kokuban kyotei", or blackboard agreement. Practically every news release is prescheduled in the press club and someone constantly updates the weekly or monthly schedule on the blackboard. (I suspect they would be a little better off if they switched over to a groupware such as Microsoft Outlook.) And of course, the scheduler is supposed to carefully avoid planning a briefing for the day before a newspaper holiday. On the day of the preannounced press release, the "news" is handed out to reporters in a form directly reprintable as an article. The handouts are often accompanied by an official interpretation of the release, or even a "suggestion" on the placement of the article. It's no wonder Japanese newspapers usually don't think it would make any sense to give a byline. Freeman even hints their mastheads won't be necessary either.

Sports news are a different story, though. When Ichiro of the Mariners beat out for the hundredth time in Seattle, of course it can't wait. When a mediocre speed skater wearing the Hinomaru failed to make the quarterfinals in Turin, despite his touching effort in the last four years, the nationwide sigh of great disappointment can't wait, either.

This is the "culture" the Japan's media have mandated themselves to "promote". And the ongoing campaign for preventing their status as a sacred cow from being forfeited under the guise of preserving the standard prices only indicates that we are still decades away from emancipating ourselves from the occlusive state of affairs. In the meantime, we can't expect the news-riggers to effectively redress the current situation where plots by bid-riggers surface one after another.

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