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After brutality scandal, private TV stations' police program methods under scrutiny

The TBS Broadcasting Center is seen in Tokyo's Akasaka district. (Mainichi)

In November 2011, when a television production company was covering a police box in a shopping area in Kagoshima in southern Japan for Tokyo Broadcasting System Inc. (TBS), an officer who received a report of a fight ended up tackling a 42-year-old man to the ground and the man suffocated.

Following the incident, two police officers were found guilty of negligence on the job resulting in death. Although the production crew assigned to the police box had complete footage of the incident, private broadcaster TBS did not use it in its news coverage. The video was seized from the production company by the Kagoshima Prefectural Police, but TBS did not file any complaints based on a lack of copyright to the material.

Through the testimonies of those related to the event, it became clear that these special programs that follow the activities of the police in fact have systemic problems. Without the full cooperation of officers, nothing can be filmed, and an individual on the police side expressed the stance that if the production side does not make considerations of their work, then they will refuse to be covered. Former producers of these programs shared their concerns from their experiences filming the programs with the Mainichi Shimbun.

The programs that follow police officers are aired as specials by each of Japan's private broadcasting stations during the spring or summer or holidays such as the end and beginning of the year. TV Asahi Corp. was the first to broadcast such a program in 1982, and the practice spread to all the other private stations during the 1990s. The programs are not produced by those who usually cover accidents and other crimes in the news departments, but rather by those producing variety and other entertainment programs.

TBS, TV Asahi, Fuji Television Network Inc. (Fuji TV) and Nippon Television Network Corp. (Nippon TV) usually begin broadcasting their police programs from mid-August. TV Tokyo Corp. aired an episode on Sept. 21, while TV Asahi had a four-hour special on Aug. 25 following police around the country handling drug and theft cases for an extended period.

According to coverage request documents obtained by the Mainichi Shimbun through a freedom of information request and interviews with those related to the production of the police programs, the first step of the process is presenting a plan to the National Police Agency.

This plan is submitted by the television station and a production company the station contracts to handle the filming of the program. This company then must meet and consult with the public relations division of the appropriate prefectural police before submitting an application detailing the broadcast period, topic of the program, period of shooting, methods and other information to the division.

It is only then that the crew is introduced to a traffic police force, police motorcycle unit, drug investigation, police station or police box or any other on-the-job location. There are times when filming can take several months to complete.

"We agree to the filming so that the public will gain a better understanding of the work that we do and to improve our image," an individual related to the police said. "That's because we need talented people to come and join our ranks. If a program with a different intent airs, then we will refuse to be filmed the next time."

According to the same individual, there is a promise between police and the production company that those filming do not ride in police vehicles; if trouble occurs, the film crew must immediately leave the area; and regular citizens and suspects all have their faces blurred out or otherwise edited. However, "We have a long-standing relationship with most of the production companies, so these agreements are made verbally, and there is not submission of any kind of paperwork," the person explained. "No issues have occurred during filming, but we usually do not want to accept requests to film at places like police boxes where you never know what might happen." The police source declined to answer whether the finished program was viewed by authorities before broadcast.

"As we continued to film, it felt more and more like we had to shoot from the point of view of the police," said a 54-year-old who was in charge of filming at a variety of production companies that shot police programs for stations like Nippon TV and TBS during the 1990s. He began to feel uneasy that television stations, organizations tasked with broadcasting the news, have continued to produce such programs for so many years.

At the time, he was working side-by-side with police officers as they carried out stings on adult-entertainment shops in Tokyo's Shinjuku district, worked at police boxes in entertainment districts in Osaka, patrolled railway stations with the Chiba Prefectural Police unit and other activities. Not knowing what would happen from moment to moment and working unscripted had a certain entertainment value even as the one behind the camera. There were also times when he felt like incidents were microcosms of society's contradictions.

On the other hand, though, while joining the police on the lookout for pickpockets or glancing at the portraits of those fallen in the line of duty hung on the wall, he recalled, "Having made an emotional connection with the force and feeling like I was one of them, I started to feel like I could not betray them."

Before he knew it, he found that during violent episodes in the field, being on the side of the police, there were times when he drew looks of contempt from the person being forced down or suppressed. After blurring out the individual's face in the footage he took, there were times when he would show the program to the police public relations representative before broadcast, but he does not remember ever being told to correct any part of the program.

"Because it is already such a burden on the police to film officers on the job, in addition to just shooting, you tend to feel like you have to show the best points about the force. I was worried what would happen if an accident took place," he said. The man wrote a letter to the manager of the production company requesting that they stop filming the police programs, but he says that the proposal was not accepted.

"For television companies, having a camera to go into places that are usually off limits means being able to take exciting footage. For the police, it also has the merit of being able to shine a spotlight on usually unrecognized 'unsung heroes' on the job," pointed out journalist Akihiro Otani, who has a wealth of experience covering the police.

"But on the other hand, even though the program appears to be objective, in reality, there has already been an agreement between the two parties over which locations footage is allowed to be taken. As the broadcast of the programs has become more customary, there has been more collusion between the two parties, and the finished product has become more like police propaganda," Otani said.

Another journalist Chiki Ogiue weighed in, "Even in the United States, programs where police engage in car chases after escaped criminals are popular. It is not only in Japan that programs following police investigations have become entertainment, and they have a completely different character from news coverage." When an incident occurs during the filming of these programs, Ogiue called for broadcasters to consider on a case by case basis what should actually be broadcast as news instead.

Of the incident with the Kagoshima Prefectural Police five years ago, Ogiue touched on the growing unrest among people in the U.S. toward the police over abuse of power after continued incidents of police brutality toward African-Americans. "TBS should have handled the incident as news the moment that a citizen died as a result of being held down by a police officer," Ogiue said. "Doesn't there also need to be consideration that the police officer acted in an extreme fashion precisely because he was being filmed for television?"

The Mainichi Shimbun reached out to the five private television stations that broadcast police programs, Nippon TV, TV Asahi, TBS TV, TV Tokyo and Fuji TV about the issue, asking if the filming depended too much on approval from the police and if the finished product was shown to public relations before being shown, but all refused to comment.

(Japanese original by Soji Kawana and Ken Aoshima, City News Department)

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