Look: another mid-ranking official!

TRY saying you don’t live there, suggests one website. Pretend you don’t have a television, says another. Such is the advice swapped online on how to avoid paying the “reception fee” that every home that owns a television must pay to NHK, Japan’s public-service broadcaster. The excuses may have to get more inventive: on December 6th Japan’s highest court ruled that the fee is constitutional, and found against a man who had refused to pay for the past 11 years.

Almost 80% of households paid last year, stumping up ¥13,990 ($125) for an ordinary television or ¥24,770 for one with a satellite dish. That is a rise of nine percentage points compared with a decade ago, thanks in no small part to NHK’s army of private collectors, who are schooled in the art of strong-arm tactics to go door-to-door. Many people refuse to pay because they don’t watch NHK, often out of distaste for its pandering to the government.

NHK, whose initials stand for Japan Broadcasting Corporation, has hardly changed since Ellis Krauss, an academic, spent years researching it in the 1990s. He described its news as “the world’s most boring”. It still reports facts with scant analysis—its officious interpretation of neutrality—and gives dreary attention to bureaucrats and politicians. Journalists who try to be too independent or inventive are cold-shouldered; those who go too far can expect to be sent to the archives.

The corporation hit a nadir in 2013 when Katsuto Momii was appointed as its head. In his first press conference he remarked that Japan’s use of wartime sex slaves in territories it conquered was not unusual. He appeared to see NHK as a public-relations agency for the authorities. “We cannot turn left when the government says right,” he memorably opined. NHK was criticised particularly for its toadying reporting of the government’s line after the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011. Anti-nuclear protests were all but ignored.

Then came a raft of prominent reporters being removed. Kensuke Okoshi, the liberal-minded anchor of the evening news, left in 2015 after questioning the government’s love of nuclear energy. A year later Hiroko Kuniya, presenter of “Close Up Gendai”, a popular news programme, met a similar fate, presumably thanks to her daringly robust questioning of the government spokesperson.

Things have improved since Mr Momii’s term expired at the start of 2017, but “it takes a long time for wounds to heal”, says a former NHK journalist. The underlying causes of NHK’s often timorous reporting remain, says Yasuo Onuki, who retired a few years ago after four decades there.

One reason for its cosy relations with government is that Japan, uniquely among democracies, has been ruled by the same lot, the Liberal Democratic Party, for all but three years of the past six decades. “They have tamed the media,” says Kaori Hayashi of Tokyo University. Chummy agreements between the government and reporters’ clubs have led to access to press events being restricted to the big domestic media, with foreigners and freelances generally excluded.

In theory NHK is independent. Unlike Britain’s BBC, it collects the reception fee itself. Its boss is appointed by its board of governors. But the prime minister appoints the board and Japan’s parliament approves its budget. In 2013 Shinzo Abe chose a clutch of governors with distinctly conservative views of women and Japan’s wartime history. The UN and Reporters Without Borders, a French-based organisation that promotes freedom of the press, now repeatedly chastise Japan for its media’s lack of independence. Officials put out by NHK’s coverage sometimes summon its staff to berate them. It is still taboo for the organisation to question the monarchy or Japan’s wartime deeds.

As much to blame, says Ms Hayashi, is the way Japanese journalism is practised. The country has a large and noisy mass media, but from their origin after the second world war they have co-operated with the government in promoting national development rather than acting as the fourth estate. Self-censorship is common. NHK’s style book for its international TV and radio tells journalists to avoid certain terms when discussing “comfort women”—those forced to have sex with Japanese soldiers. They should refer to the Rape of Nanjing by Japanese troops in 1937 as an “incident”, not a “massacre”, though the death toll rivalled those of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In that sense NHK hardly differs from other Japanese media. All the same, the country would be poorer without it, says the former journalist. It makes excellent documentaries. It had the scoop in 2016 of a video in which the emperor hinted at wishing (much to the government’s chagrin) to step down. It remains the country’s most trusted outlet. It is the go-to station in times of natural disasters, the sole broadcaster of sumo and the source of the most accurate exit polls.

But Japanese disapprove of the broadcaster’s attempts to subject ever more people to its fees. It now wants those who watch its content online to cough up, drawing criticism even from former officials. If NHK cannot persuade people to pay voluntarily for its programmes (for example, by making more interesting ones), why should they be forced to?