Media watch: Yomiuri Shimbun to become PR organ for Osaka?

Yomiuri Shimbun, Osaka head office

On December 22, an item appeared on the Osaka Prefectural government’s official home page. It was an announcement for a contract signing ceremony that would take place after lunch on December 27 in the third floor conference room of the prefectural building. The ceremony would start with an introduction of the participants and then move on to a brief explanation of the terms of the agreement and some words from the two men who would sign/conclude the document. Afterwards, there would be a short Q&A session with the available press and a photo session. The whole thing would be over in 20 minutes. 

Such announcements are common and usually attract little notice, but this one was different. One of the men who is signing what the Osaka government is calling a “comprehensive cooperation agreement” is Osaka governor Hirofumi Yoshimura, and the other is Gaku Shibata, the president of the Osaka head office of the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest daily newspaper. The general purpose of the agreement, according to the home page, is to “activate regional services for residents of Osaka prefecture.” In order to accomplish this, the two parties will “work together” on a series of endeavors, including education and training of prefectural personnel; dissemination of information; promotion of safety and a sense of well-being; services regarding children and general welfare; regional stimulus measures; industrial development and employment; matters related to health and the environment; and others. A more detailed explanation of the agreement would be provided in a press release distributed after the ceremony. 

No major media outlets remarked on the announcement on the day that it appeared. However, various individual media players reacted with considerable alarm afterwards. On the December 24 edition of the web program Videonews.com, freelance journalist Tetsuo Jimbo called the news “shocking.” What does it mean, he asked, that Osaka Prefecture and Yomiuri Shimbun would be “working together”? “Does this mean Yomiuri is going to announce that it is no longer a newsgathering company?” His interlocutor, sociologist Shinji Miyadai, said, “That’s what it sounds like.”

The Osaka government is calling the agreement a “public-private collaboration,” and while Miyadai admitted that often universities and government entities do form working arrangements, usually to study issues, he had never heard of a government entity entering into a partnership with a news media company. Jimbo replied that under normal circumstances the Osaka Prefectural government “should be Yomiuri’s target, not their partner,” and went on to call the pact a “suicidal act” for Yomiuri. What’s even more amazing, he said, was that they were publicizing the agreement, as if it were something to be proud of. Miyadai concurred, suggesting that people who knew anything about the media probably already understood that various news organizations already had informal agreements with local governments but preferred to keep such things under wraps. The fact that no other major news outlet had reacted at all to the announcement so far only went to show that they didn’t find the arrangement questionable. But publicizing it with a ceremony was beyond the pale. Jimbo added that since the ceremony was being held in the prefectural office, only the Osaka Prefecture press club would be invited to cover it, and given that government-affiliated press clubs are stenographers in the first place, none of the reporters will actively question the agreement. Still, the two men wondered if, over the Christmas weekend, any major media outlets would raise a fuss.

We looked and didn’t find any that did. However, on December 25, Yukou Shimizu, the host of the daily web talk show Hitotsuki Mansatsu, was quite worked up over the announcement, which he first heard about in a message from reporter Ryu Honma, who was his guest that day. Honma’s reaction was similar to Jimbo’s: Yomiuri Shimbun is effectively finished as a news outlet. By aligning themselves with Osaka Prefecture as its public relations partner, the newspaper had completed the “press suicide” it had started when it signed on as a sponsorship partner for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Honma went on to speculate that the reason for the tieup was obvious: Yomiuri meant to get its hands on some of the money that it expected to be pouring in for the Osaka Expo in 2025. 

Shimizu took the speculation further, saying that, because Osaka was essentially controlled by one political party, Ishin no Kai (the Japan Innovation Party), it meant that Yomiuri was signing on to be Ishin’s PR organ, and since Ishin was a national political party, Yomiuri’s job brief for Osaka would necessarily be extended nationwide. Carrying out their appointed work, Yomiuri would not be able to cover either the Osaka Prefectural government or Ishin’s national activities in any kind of negative light.

Apparently, this isn’t the first time that Yomiuri has entered into such an agreement with a local government entity. Honma mentioned that Yomiuri already has such an arrangement with the city of Ube in Yamaguchi Prefecture, but Ube is small so it doesn’t make that much of a difference. Shimizu strongly disagreed, since Ube is a long-time political stronghold of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which has close connections to the city’s biggest company, a cement and materials manufacturer that makes about ¥700 billion a year.

Though no media outlets commented on the announcement over the weekend, a close survey of Twitter revealed some individual reporters, as well as members of the general public, raising concern. One person tweeted that the agreement reminded them of the military government’s commandeering of the mass media for propaganda purposes during World War II. A reporter said that if they could attend the ceremony, they would ask the Yomiuri Osaka president if he had decided to “abandon” his role as an independent newsgathering organization. Another speculated that Yomiuri would now become the “newsletter” of Osaka. Isoko Mochizuki, the famous investigative reporter for Tokyo Shimbun, wondered if Yomiuri could ever again claim that they monitored those in power. Still another reporter joked that the ceremony would mark Yomiuri’s “coming out” as having been an establishment booster all along. They would now be free at last.

Update Dec. 28, 2021: A group of journalists has created a petition to protest the agreement.

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