Photo/IllutrationSusumu Ishihara, left, chairman of the Board of Governors at Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK), and Ryoichi Ueda, president of NHK, at a news conference on the public broadcaster’s business plan in November 2018 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

What does it mean to be a “public” entity? What kind of determination do media workers need to make if they wish to stand on the “viewpoint of the audience”?

Top management executives of Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) should ask themselves these questions anew.

It was learned recently that NHK officials took unusual steps last year in response to its broadcast program that reported on Japan Post Insurance Co.’s inappropriate practices in the sales of its insurance products.

The Japan Post Group sent a written request to NHK’s Board of Governors, whereupon the board gave a “warning” to NHK President Ryoichi Ueda, sources said.

Around the same time, the airing of a sequel to the program was postponed, and a video on Twitter that called on NHK viewers to provide information on the case was also deleted. All this occurred in summer last year, exactly as many Japan Post Insurance policyholders were suffering disadvantages when they switched between different policies.

Japan Post officials initially protested the video on Twitter, saying, among other things, that it amounted to “defamation.” A senior official of the NHK program later told the Japan Post officials, as part of explanations, that production of broadcast programs and business management are separate functions of NHK, so the president of the public broadcaster is not involved in program productions.

The Japan Post officials found fault with that remark and called on Ueda, the NHK president, and later also on the Board of Governors, to review NHK’s governance system.

The warning to Ueda came on the basis of that request. Ueda subsequently sent a document to Japan Post, in which he said the handling of the case by the senior program official was “extremely regrettable.”

The Broadcasting Law forbids the NHK Board of Governors to become involved in the editing of broadcast programs. That prohibition is there to guarantee NHK’s freedom of the editing of its own broadcast programs.

Susumu Ishihara, chairman of the NHK Board of Governors, said the board stood on the “viewpoint of the audience” in handling the case. He added he understands that the board is not allowed to become involved in editing.

We can only doubt that he is qualified to serve as head of management of a public broadcaster.

Thought should rather have been given to the “viewpoint of the audience” over NHK’s reporting activities, which are about covering an event that is causing extensive damage and about sharing reports on it with society.

Complying individually with complaints lodged by a business that is being blamed for problems only harms confidence in, and fairness of, NHK as a public broadcaster.

Among the workers at Japan Post Holdings Co. are former officials of the communications ministry, which oversees public administration on matters of broadcasting.

A Japan Post official, who previously served as administrative vice minister of communications, was involved in the talks with NHK. One could be excused for believing that the NHK Board of Governors likely curried favor with the assumed desires and intentions of the official.

The Board of Governors is NHK’s supreme decision-making body, which appoints the president and makes decisions on management policies.

However, not even minutes are available on the latest development of events. This exemplifies a lack of transparency in NHK’s management style, which also poses a problem in itself.

Time is approaching for nominating the NHK president for the next term. We remain strongly ill at ease, however, about leaving that task in the hands of the current Board of Governors.

The executives of Japan Post Holdings should also reflect seriously on their conduct.

The NHK program and the subsequent development presented one of the golden opportunities for facing up squarely to the problems of sales practices by Japan Post Insurance. Japan Post, however, took steps in the opposite direction to lodge protests.

Masatsugu Nagato, president of Japan Post Holdings, said on an earlier occasion that he realized only in June this year that the Japan Post Insurance scandal was so serious in nature.

He should have felt shame at the failure of governance at his own company before finding fault with what he calls NHK’s “governance” problem.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 28