Saturday, November 10, 2007

How Many People Would Notice if No Laws Are Passed During This Diet Session?

If the current extraordinary Diet session, instead of being extended for 35 days, had lapsed today, the amendment to the law that expands assistance to victims of disasters would have been the only piece of legislation achieved, and yet another of my predictions, that the ruling coalition would wind up exercising the supermajority override vote on the new OEF-MIO refueling bill, would have failed to come true. But otherwise, would the Japanese national well-being be measurably affected for better or worse?

Yes, the media would be greatly concerned and would trot out an endless array of political commentators and other public figures to condemn the waste of public money and neglect of the public good and propose all manners of remedies, and intersperse them with interviews of the common folk dutifully expressing their displeasure at the political tomfoolery. But who other than the special interests involved (here I am not passing judgment on the validity of the respective claims on legislative attention and the public coffers), as well as alliance minders, would not be able then to afford to forget the matter, at least until the Diet resumes in the next regular session, sometime in January? And how many of those special interests would actually be worse off as the result of neglect? After all, there are many shades of desirability and necessity.

In fact, there appear to be few legislative needs that must be taken care of now. If no other laws are passed in the now customary long autumn session, many will be disappointed, some will be elated, but the net impact on the national well-being will be negligible. The LDP and DPJ are dithering in no small part because they can afford to. They are like two stags circling each other hoping that the other will lose nerve and back off. On the other hand, they have been working out compromises on a number of issues minor and not so minor - here, I am thinking of the reform of the political financing reporting system – and several of them appear ensured to end up in actual legislation, while the refueling renewal bill is highly likely to be the subject of the first supermajority override in Japanese history.

Yet there had been a lot of noise about the Diet being in session for a whole month without passing a single law (till yesterday) - a noise so loud, in fact, that a couple of old men (whom every news outlet tabloid and non- except the Yomiuri group named as Yomiuri's power behind the throne Tsuneo Watanabe and former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori) convinced two other old men to get together to agree to a Grand Coalition or whatever they agreed to do but could not. And indeed there is nothing inherently wrong with the two majority parties uniting to form a single government, or a newspaper editorializing in favor of such an arrangement. (Japan got along quite comfortably for quite a while after the two conservative parties got together in 1955 to form an enduring absolute majority.)

However, when a newspaper not only advocates the political arrangement as such, but also uses its regular reporting to effect such an outcome, and more seriously actively works behind the scenes to push the agenda, then the newspaper itself becomes the news. And not to report such behind-the-scenes action is a form of self-censorship; not the way that the fourth estate is expected to function in a democracy.

Some would bring out a variation of the post-modern argument that there is no "objective viewpoint", while others would use examples such as anti-evolutionists and flat-earthers to endorse the media taking "a stand". And there is some plausibility to the statement that "once you know which way they're leaning it's easy to "tweak" the articles accordingly when reading them". However, these arguments cannot be conducted in the abstract; neither evolution theory nor creationism, for example, provides a valid analogy for a stand one way or other on the far-more debatable refueling operations. And the "tweaking" claim is hard to sustain when the media outlet in question is weeding out inconvenient facts and dressing up the remainder in the guise of straight reporting. Unless you follow the matter with particular attention or are blessed with omniscience, all too often, the best that you can do is to read the editorial, shrug, and say, "Well, Asahi/Yomiuri is saying that because…"

As Shisaku points out here, the bias becomes even more disguised (and selective) when it is filtered through the English-language media. But it is there at the source, which fact should be taken note of, particularly when the matter is of no little import. (Perhaps I should be writing this in Japanese.)

Going back to the mode of interaction between the two major parties, the real test awaits in the regular Diet session that will convene in January and run into the summer months. If nothing is done then, much time-limited legislation, including many temporary tax credits and deductions, will expire and the public will express its very real displeasure. The current extraordinary session is better regarded as the testing grounds for means of cooperation and competition, and even outright confrontation, and the gauging of the public response thereto.


MTC said...

Okumura-san -

Thank you for pointing out that the LDP started out as a stability-seeking union between two ideologically similar parties. It is a great talking point. May I borrow it from time to time?

Jun Okumura said...

Why not? I'm probably borrowing ideas all the time from the people I know, without even realizing it.

Janne Morén said...

What I wrote in my comment (it's ok to use my name, not attribute me to "some" and "others"), was of course assuming an actual will on the media to report in an objective manner. I'm no post-modern relativist; an objective stance usually does exist in my view, it's just too much to ask for imperfect (and imperfectly informed) humans to reliably find it, especially on a tight deadline on thorny issues where no straightforward right answer really exists.

What you're describing regarding Yomiuri is a different thing. It's a media outlet that consciously abandons all pretense of reporting the news, and becomes a propaganda arm of a political entity. In essence, it's no longer about media objectivity as such, since they have ceased to be part of the media to become a political PR firm.

So, Yomiuri is a fundamentally bad newspaper, in the malignant sense of the word. The question is, what can happen to it? Are any other big papers going to call them on it? Are there publication or distribution laws in Japan that they run afoul of - if they are stumping for a specific party, in collusion with it, are they legally allowed to publish during election campaigns, for instance?

Jun Okumura said...

Thank you for the clarification, Janne. We appear to be more or less on the same page then. My apologies for misrepresenting your views.

Tabloids and weekly magazines issued by non-newspaper publishers have been on Tsuneo Watanabe's case for a long time and, as far as I can gather from advertisements, this occasion is no exception. TV news and wide shows probably provide some correction as well, but I watch very little of that, so I can't be sure. Shisaku surely knows more about that. The other dailies are reporting his and Yoshiro Mori's roles without, to the best of my knowledge, critical commentary. I doubt that even Asahi will be more forthcoming with criticism; phrases like professional courtesy and honor among thieves come to mind.

To me, the Yomiuri editorial board and writers both appear to be letting an unaccountable figure do some of their thinking for them. In any case, I think that it is an unhealthy state of affairs.

MTC said...

Okumura-san -

For criticism of the Yomiuri and Watanabe Tsuneo's role in the promoting the coalition idea, check out The Asahi Shimbun's second editorial on Saturday. The Asahi editors pull no punches:

Incidentally, on the page facing the editorial lambasting the Yomiuri for its stagemanagement of policy was a photo of Funabashi Yoichi interviewing Defense Secretary Robert Gates. I could no help but start muttering, "people in glass house shouldn't..."

Jun Okumura said...

Right you are, MTC. that was careless of me. I have to be more attentive to editorials.