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Editorial: What was behind leadership switch at Japan public broadcaster NHK?

Former Mizuho Financial Group Inc. Chairman Terunobu Maeda has been chosen to be the next president of public broadcaster NHK, and is set to assume the post from Ryoichi Ueda in late January next year. Some observers had expected Ueda to stay on, so what was the reason for the switch?

Ueda helped tidy up the mess at NHK left by his own predecessor Katsuto Momii, whose tenure was marked by repeated bouts of chaos stemming from his many unguarded remarks, which called his qualifications to head the public broadcaster into question. Ueda also reoriented the public broadcaster for the online age by laying the groundwork for simultaneous internet streaming of its TV programs -- perhaps the project dearest to his heart -- and spearheaded the reduction of mandatory NHK subscription fees. All in all, the former Mitsubishi Corp. executive was highly regarded by many both within and outside NHK.

The issue that seems to be lurking in the background of his replacement is the April 2018 "Close-up Gendai Plus" news program episode exposing predatory insurance policy sales tactics by staff at Japan Post offices. The NHK Board of Governors, the broadcaster's highest body, severely rebuked Ueda over the program after being leaned on hard by Japan Post Holdings Co.

The Board of Governors has insisted that the incident was down to "a governance problem," but nothing has been done to allay suspicions that the board interfered with NHK's news editorial rights, something explicitly forbidden under the Broadcasting Act.

It is not that the content of the insurance story was mistaken; it was not. And Ueda resisted the pressure and demands coming from Japan Post.

Meanwhile, figures in the prime minister's office are said to have grown increasingly irritated with Ueda for not doing enough to stem criticism of the Shinzo Abe administration on NHK programs. If bringing Maeda in to head the broadcaster is designed to strengthen the government's influence over programming, this would be a major problem. Indeed, Maeda's close ties to the PM's office have been noted. He was a member of the "Shiki no Kai," an advisory group to Prime Minister Abe made up of leading figures in business and economics.

Maeda will also be the fifth NHK president in a row to come from the business community instead of from within the broadcaster. Nevertheless, as the head of a news organization tasked with keeping a watchful eye on the government, Maeda must keep his distance from the Abe administration and make it plain he will uphold the principles of public broadcasting.

NHK has been grappling with the three tasks of strengthening governance, addressing its fee system, and revamping its operational structure for many years. Meanwhile, criticism of the broadcaster for getting too big -- including its expanding online presence -- has deep roots.

The broadcaster has announced that the launch of its constant simultaneous streaming service has been pushed back from this fiscal year to April 2020, after being asked by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications to reconsider the plan. Furthermore, NHK stated that it planned to vastly reduce the operational budget for its online operations.

NHK broke through the 700-billion-yen (about $6.4 billion) barrier in subscription fees for the first time in fiscal 2018. Making the fee levels more appropriate, among other tasks, will be a major test of skill for the broadcaster's next president.

Meanwhile, as natural disaster damage mounts across Japan, NHK is being relied upon more than ever to provide timely and accurate information. Winning trust from viewers is the lifeline of a public broadcaster.

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