Friday, July 20, 2007

The BBC Takes on Constitutional Amendment as an Upper House Election Issue

The BBC takes on constitutional amendment as an Upper House election issue, and in what is becoming a distressingly familiar turn of events, manages to get it wrong in so many ways.

Later this month Japanese politicians will be fighting an election that will decide the make-up of the upper house of parliament.… One issue that is attracting a fair amount of attention is his plan to reform the country's pacifist constitution.

What the article doesn't tell you is that the only reason that the issue is getting any attention is because Prime Minister Abe chose to make it one of his two signature issues of the campaign against the wishes of most of the party leadership. It didn't make political sense; constitutional amendment had been the least of concerns of the electorate, even before the public pension scandals broke out in full flush. Moreover, discussions over the substance of any amendments would only come much later in the political schedule, so why focus your campaign on the only parties that oppose amendment outright, the always marginal Communists and the all-but-gone Social Democrats? Even so, events have overtaken Mr. Abe's desires. The cumulative effect of all the scandals have made sure that constitutional amendment is an issue of little interest during the campaign.

The writer does go on to give you in a remarkably short narrative a good recap of the post-war history of Article 9 mostly through an interview of Professor Phil Deans (TUJ) But he goes on to make an important factual assertion on his own and gets it completely wrong:

It is only relatively recently, though, that the LDP has had a leader from the conservative wing of the party determined to press ahead with changing the constitution - and also enough MPs in parliament to give it a chance of getting passed.

One can only assume that the writer is talking about the Lower House, where the Prime Minister Koizumi-led LDP scored a historic victory in 2005 and now holds 306 seats. But in order to proceed to the simple majority referendum stage, you need a 2/3 supermajority in each of the two Houses. The Lower House has 480 seats, and 480*2/3=320. The writer cannot claim to have misspoken here and actually meant the LDP-New Komeito coalition, since the pacifist New Komeito is dead set against the kind of amendment that Mr. Abe wants.

The writer then gives us Mr. Abe's motives:

Mr. Abe appears to believe constitutional revision is one of the best hopes his party has of shoring up its vote.

If so, then Mr. Abe is one of the few people in the LDP who thought so, or so I believe. This is a debatable question, but is moot anyway, as we already saw. In any case, the writer ignores that likelihood that he was driven at least as much and perhaps significantly more by his personal convictions. Give him this, Mr. Abe seems to have at least some measure of the stubbornness of his most cherished convictions. The writer swallows the following quote from Professor Deans. I think Professor Deans is highly misleading:

"So partly this move towards constitutional revision … is Abe looking for a cause, something to believe in, looking for something to sell to the public. Reform of the constitution is his big ticket item."

The writer tries to add something on his own, again by way of interviews:

What is interesting when you ask people their views about constitutional revision is that how old they are tends to affect what they think about the issue.

Now this is a frequently repeated, plausible assertion that is supported by some surveys, if I remember correctly. But it is disingenuous to claim that it is something that you have come across by talking to people and give just two example as proof. The 70-something pacifist who wants to maintain the status quo can be easily refuted by the example of Hisahiko Okazaki, the 70-something realist/hawk and confidante to Mr. As I chronicled elsewhere, the human experience is much richer than the simple generational assertion the writer seems to make through the two examples.

The writer continues:

The reality is that changing the constitution in parliament, or the Diet as it is known, will not be easy even if the LDP were to strengthen its hold on the upper house in next month's elections.

So true. But isn't it a little silly to use this as a lead-in to an explanation about the procedural realities, when the only meaningful question is to what extent the LDP can minimize losses?

The writers finishes with several paragraphs on reaction from China and South Korea. He quotes Professor Masatoshi Honda (National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies) on this, but but the quote is rrelevant. Then, he finishes with the following:

So will China and South Korea trust Japan's leaders enough to get on with it? So far they have said little, but that is perhaps because it is only recently that Mr Abe has hinted at what exactly will be changed.

He has told reporters he will start by revising the constitution item by item, rather than amending it as a whole, and incorporate environmental rights into the document before tackling the preamble and the war-renouncing Article 9.

That cautious approach could blunt criticism from abroad in the early stages of any constitutional revision, but any change to Article 9 will no doubt attract a lot more attention.

But our neighbors know very well what Mr. Abe wants. Mr. Abe's piecemeal approach likely refers to a talk he gave on July 11 (for which no really good online source is available). But our neighbors, China in particular, have been uncommonly quiet for many months on this, in China's case possibly for a year or more, when all the talk seemed to center on Article 9. Thus, the reason for the seeming quiescence must be sought at least partly beyond Mr. Abe's "cautious approach" incongruously leading off with environmental rights (I have to see it to believe it; you can't make constitutional amendment an annual exercise). There is some self-evident truth to the writer's conclusion that "any change to Article 9 will no doubt attract a lot more attention", but if that's all that he'd wanted to say, he used up a lot of space, if not time, to do so.

Now it is one thing when a Steve Clemons or a Francis Fukuyama flies in to Tokyo, hangs out for a few days with English-language speakers, then picks up on a popular trope and writes it up as a right-wing surge (sorry, DT, I'll get on that piece one of these days), but its totally another when a Tokyo-based correspondent of a trusted international news service fails to "get it".

The key to understanding this lies in the extreme reliance on anecdotes. Now an anecdote can help illuminate and clarify a general point, but it can never prove it. Just because one of your classmates has a PS3, it does not mean, "I'm the only one that doesn't have a PS3 waaaaah!" But is the underlying logic here any different from that of a story filled with unsubstantiated anecdotes?

Of course it's easy to write a story using anecdotes. You go out there and interview a few people, then string up the choicest bits to fit your preconceived storyline, and, voila, you're finished for the day, no need to do research, no need to read primary sources, so your local staff can take the day off too. I expect better from the top-tier British media. Have the 24/7 demands of the Internet forced BBC to dumb down its standards? But if you can't trust reports on what you are familiar with, how can you rely on them about things you don't know?


Garrett said...

Is that everybody's favorite correspondent Chris Hogg again? From the first time I heard him talk about people in Japan being excited about farm-raised "m'GOOro" (otherwise known as maguro) on the World Service, he struck as being a bit lost to be the BBC's man in Japan.
On politics and other subjects alike, he has the habit of interviewing one person, then running with it.

Jun Okumura said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jun Okumura said...

At least this time he did multiple interviews.