I’m such a fan of the Financial Times that I’ve even given in to its paywall strategy and subscribe to it. That’s why I’m so worried about yesterday’s news of its sale by Britain’s Pearson PLC to Japanese media giant Nikkei Inc. The FT‘s coverage of the economics and business worlds, in particular, is peerless, and even though that’s too often a low bar, the paper (including its web offerings) has consistently served up information virtually unavailable anywhere else, and its news approach is much more often than not non-ideological.
Ownership by a Japanese company could easily change all that, and this danger has been badly neglected by the discussion and commentary spurred by the transaction. In short, for all the faults of U.S. and the rest of western journalism, it’s been a paragon of independence and a genuine watchdog over government compared to its Japanese counterpart – Nikkei included.
Fans of the deal themselves (all too briefly) acknowledge the problem. Thus leading financial journalist Felix Salmon writes that “The Financial Times could not hope for a better parent,” even though he writes that the Japanese company “has historically been more deferential toward big business.” Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky provides much needed elaboration. Nikkei, he observes, is “said to be too soft on the Japanese corporate establishment. You can get a flavor of its kind of business journalism from its English-language Asian Review. Many of the stories read like press releases, and the FT probably wouldn’t have run them.”
“The last really big corporate scandal in Japan, when Olympus was found to be concealing losses of $1.3bn, resulted in the unceremonious sacking of the (English) chief executive who revealed it. The Financial Times broke the story; Nikkei did not cover it until it became wholly unavoidable. Nor would readers of Nikkei be acutely aware that Japanese-made airbags have been blowing up in the US since 2004, a story that has long preoccupied the New York Times.”
As this revelation indicates, the problem hardly stops with Nikkei, and is anything but new. Even more alarming have been the findings of many Western journalists and academics with long experience working in Japan. Despite the emergence of democratic forms of government in Japan after World War II, political scientists such as Laurie Anne Freeman of the University of California, Santa Barbara have explained that for decades:
“the press system in Japan [has served] as neither a watchdog nor a lapdog. Nor does the state directly control the press in ways Westerners might think of as censorship. The level of interconnectedness, through both official and unofficial channels, helps set the agenda and terms of political debate in Japan’s mass media to an extent that is unimaginable to many in the United States and other advanced industrial democracies.”
Worse, reports have abounded recently that the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been trying to capitalize on the Japanese media’s long record of subservience by increasing pressure to produce favorable coverage.
The Financial Times‘ deserved reputation for integrity may survive in the Nikkei regime. But precisely because self censorship is so intrinsically difficult to track, and because despite their avowed dedication to openness, media companies’ internal editorial operations tend to be highly opaque, evidence of any FT slippage will be hard to identify. And if it does occur, its forms will be subtle. Further, observers will be forced to play the not-entirely-fair game of wondering whether even seemingly aggressive coverage of Japan in particular by FT could and should have been more hard-hitting.
Yet because the appearance of conflict of interest is just as important as actual conflicts, such questions will become unavoidable. I hope they’ll serve as a warning to other western news organizations that become targets for takeover from political systems that prize far too few western values.
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