Thursday, April 29, 2010

Media vultures circle P.M.

In Brazil they tell the story of the small-town TV crime reporter who gained fame and scoops by arranging crimes himself. He could then rush out and interview the victims well before rivals. But eventually his scoops caught up with him and he ended up in jail.

Jail is where a lot of the Japanese media should also be. Prime ministers are their favorite victims. They hover like hungry vultures waiting for a moment of weakness, often through the negative opinion poll ratings that they themselves organize.

Then they attack. The more they attack the more the favorable poll ratings decline. Then when the figures get down below the 30-percent level they move in for the kill and begin to call for a change of prime ministers.

True, and unlike with the Brazilian reporter, they have to share their "scoops" with fellow vultures. But they get a double dip. They get to fill many column inches of reportage on the way down. And they fill even more column inches on the way up, as the race gets under way to find, elect and install a new prime minister.

Much the same process is now under way around prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, trying desperately to find a replacement for U.S. Marine Air Station Futenma in a nation where few will accept U.S. bases in their location.

Meanwhile, the United States says it will not accept any alternative that does not meet its own demands and that the population in the proposed location will not accept. Anywhere else in the world the media would sympathize with a leader put in this impossible position. Some would even ask why Japan has to accept the bases in the first place. But not in Japan.

It is taken for granted that failure to meet U.S. demands before the end-of-May deadline should automatically push the prime minister into a resignation dilemma. The fact that many in Washington have a vested interest in seeing the pacifist, Asia-first, Hatoyama removed is also ignored.

Nor do any in the media seem to want to expose the hypocrisy of the former ruling Liberal Democratic Party on this issue. The LDP was unable for years to overcome local resistance to build — at Henoko, Okinawa — the alternative site that the U.S. wanted. But it encourages local resistance to a Hatoyama plan for another alternative site in nearby Tokunoshima, and then uses that resistance as yet more proof that Hatoyama should resign for failing to satisfy U.S. demands. The phoniness of the indignation with which the LDP leader, Sadokazu Tanigaki, attacks Hatoyama on the issue is ignored.

Maybe there were a few obscure ex-Soviet or ultraright Latin-American republics that allowed the fate of their prime ministers to be decided by the whims of a foreign power. But this is Japan. Is it supposed to lower itself to that same levels of degradation?

We are told the alternative base is needed for Japan security. But the main activity of the Futenma helicopters to date has been support for U.S. adventures in Vietnam and Afghanistan. What is that supposed to do for Japan security? It is said to deter Chinese military action against Taiwan. And what if that in turn becomes a major incentive for China to develop its military power? China will be around long after the U.S. has lost military interest in this part of the world.

And so it continues. The media make much of opinion differences within Hatoyama's ruling Democratic Party of Japan, in particular the failure to gain Cabinet unanimity on several domestic issues. But it is basic Democracy 101 that within any functioning government there should be differences of opinion and debates to solve them. I once worked in an Australian government where Cabinet debates would last hours and could only be resolved by razor-thin voting majorities in the Cabinet room itself. Meanwhile, democratic Japan is supposed to operate like some tin-pot autocracy boasting national unity.

The government is criticized by the same media for going back on some of its earlier idealistic promises. But it has done so mainly because it now realizes the need for more stimulus to the economy and for the income to finance it. Meanwhile, the same media criticize the government for failure to stimulate the economy and to find the income needed to improve the nation finances.

Japan deserves better than this. At the very least it deserves something better than a small-town Brazilian crime reporter play-acting.