Okada: No need for vice-minister press conferences; Nikkei: Take it back NOW

My new circumstances give me access to most of the daily papers, in real live dead tree format. So today I looked at the Nikkei and came away with some thoughts:

Nikkei has an editorial forcefully demanding that the DPJ scrap any plans it might have to eliminate press conferences for every ministry’s vice-minister (事務次官). The piece is a reaction to a recent comment from incoming foreign minister Katsuya Okada that they wouldn’t need to hold their own press  conferences because the traditional vice-minister inter-ministry meetings will be discontinued. Under LDP rule, the meetings had become a sort of shadow cabinet meeting and a manifestation of bureaucrat rule.

Calling the suggestion “rash,” the editorial writers lecture Okada that the people in power always try and reduce the number of press conferences as a way to escape scrutiny, and that it’s not up to those in power to decide what the public’s right to know is. One example of the benefits of these press conferences is that the agricultural vice-minister recently had to step down for making inappropriate comments at his press conference about a tainted rice scandal.

I checked, and none of the other major newspapers felt the need to devote an editorial to this issue (the Yomiuri for its part allotted its second editorial to lionizing Ichiro for his new hitting record). But I wouldn’t be surprised if some follow the Nikkei’s lead.

The incoming DPJ administration is expected to open up the press clubs in government institutions, which previously have been almost exclusively limited to domestic, mainstream newspapers and TV stations. Hence, the mainstream news media are on the watch for any signs they could lose their biggest asset – privileged access to those in power. The newspapers are more exposed to damage on this front than TV stations as the news is their only business, at least in their principal medium. The Nikkei in particular just got done posting its first loss since it started publishing figures, for the first half of 2009.

In principle, I agree with the Nikkei’s point that the powerful should be held up to scrutiny. But the Nikkei is changing the subject. Okada didn’t necessarily say he wanted to reduce the number of press conferences. As far as I can tell, Okada’s is merely saying that if the vice-ministers aren’t going to be in a position to speak for their ministries, of course they shouldn’t have press conferences. Maybe a political appointee would be the more appropriate person to put in front of the podium.

In fact, the DPJ’s plans to open up press clubs to independent media will open up government, so I would not be worried if the government stops holding press conference for people who are supposedly irrelevant anyway. The DPJ shouldn’t listen to the Nikkei. Remember, the media will try to portray itself as a defender of the public good, when in fact it’s an institution that’s exploited government secrecy for decades to its financial benefit. I would be happier if the Nikkei spent its vast resources not on acting as stenographers for the government and occasionally getting someone to say stupid things in public (as they did to make the vice minister resign), but instead on actual investigations.

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