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NHK board's minutes omitted rebuke of president over illicit insurance sales report

A document dated Oct. 23, 2018, obtained by the Mainichi Shimbun shows the NHK Board of Governors reporting its rebuke of NHK President Ryoichi Ueda the same day to the presidents of three companies in the Japan Post group, including Japan Post Holdings Co. President Masatsugu Nagato. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- The NHK Board of Governors did not mention its rebuke of the public broadcaster's president, Ryoichi Ueda, over a program accusing post offices of illicit life insurance policy sales practices in the minutes of its meeting, in a suspected attempt to avert criticism that the board intervened in an individual program, the Mainichi Shimbun has learned.

The Broadcasting Act obliges the chairman of the Board of Governors, the top decision-making body of the broadcaster, to create and publicize the minutes of the board's meetings, but the severe warning to President Ueda was given behind closed doors, which apparently spared the board chairman of the legal requirement.

"They may have feared that if the severe warning came to the surface (through meeting minutes), it could spark criticism that the warning constituted intervention in an individual program by the board's governors, which is prohibited under the Broadcasting Act," a source close to the Tokyo-based broadcaster said.

The severe warning came in October 2018 after Japan Post Holdings Co. demanded NHK's executive body, including President Ueda, explain the broadcaster's corporate governance in connection with the program "Close-Up Gendai Plus," subtitled, "Are post offices involved in coercive sales? Confessions by postal workers." The program, aired on April 24, 2018, exposed post offices' inappropriate practices while selling life insurance policies to elderly people and others.

One of the members of the Board of Governors who spearheaded the rebuke of Ueda explained that, "We gave the warning in a closed setting as we thought it was essentially a matter that should be dealt with by NHK's executive body, not by the Board of Governors." This view is echoed by some other board members.

While Article 41 of the Broadcasting Act mandates the chairman of the Board of Governors to produce and release the meeting minutes in order to ensure transparency of the broadcaster's management, it is left to the discretion of the board as to how far the minutes should delve into the contents of the meetings.

The website of the Board of Governors carries the minutes of a meeting held on Oct. 23, 2018, the day when President Ueda was reprimanded. While the minutes record that attendees discussed issues including discounts to NHK reception fees, they made no mention of the warning given to Ueda.

According to sources close to the broadcaster, the board held a meeting attended only by its members, where Ueda was called in and rebuked. The meeting took place separately from one that also included NHK executives.

Such meetings involving only members of the Board of Governors are internally called "members only gatherings" and are not subject to the obligation to release the minutes.

"The fact that they kept the (Oct. 23) meeting to board members only may be a sign that they were aware of the problem entailing the severe warning. The release of meeting minutes is too arbitrary," an individual associated with the broadcaster said.

When former NHK President Katsuto Momii was reprimanded on three occasions over his problematic remarks and use of NHK funds to hire a car for private purposes, the warnings were recorded in the meeting minutes and were publicized.

Rikkyo University professor Hiroyoshi Sunakawa, who specializes in media theory, commented, "As NHK is supported by receiving fees, it basically should make its management public to viewers. If the broadcaster does not carry in its minutes such a severe punishment as a rebuke of its president, the Board of Governors could end up losing confidence. How are they going to explain if they were accused of withholding the facts in the minutes because they have something to hide?"

The secretariat to the Board of Governors declined to comment when asked by the Mainichi Shimbun about the criteria for releasing the minutes of the board's meetings.

Masatoshi Nakamura, chairman of the Japan Broadcasting Labor Union comprising NHK employees, blasted the broadcaster's series of responses to the issue in a comment posted on the union's website. "It is a matter that could raise suspicions about (NHK)'s independence," the comment said.

It was revealed this year that some 183,000 Japan Post Insurance contracts had been sold through post offices nationwide using illicit techniques, including cases of policy switches putting customers at a disadvantage, and charging premiums for both previous and current policies. The NHK "Close-Up Gendai Plus" program was the first to report on the wrongdoing.


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