I turned off the news last night. This isn’t entirely uncommon; news programmes in Japan often devote an interminable amount of time to something terribly dull, so I switch off, but last night I turned off the news because my partner and I looked at each other and agreed that this just wasn’t something we wanted to watch any more.
Here’s why. The trial began yesterday of an 18 year old (now 19) and two 17 year old accomplices who, almost exactly a year ago, murdered a 13 year old boy by stabbing him and throwing him naked into a freezing river in Kawasaki. It’s a horrific and disturbing case, and while there are key details that most audiences probably want to know (what the context to the killing was, what kind of previous contact the victim had with his killers, and so on), the sentence I just wrote is probably all you need or want to know about the physical details of the actual killing.
If you watched the news last night, you got so much more. Using a 3D recreation of the courtroom, 3D models of the various parties to the trial and voice actors dubbing the recorded statements of the accused, the news chose to repeat pretty much the entire cross-examination of the accused killers regarding how, exactly, they carried out the murder. In a segment which probably lasted around ten minutes (and felt far longer, though we switched off before the end), we got multiple accounts of precisely how the attackers beat and cut their victim – how many stab wounds, in what parts of his body, and which parts they cut first; how they held the knife as they slashed his throat; how parts of the box-cutter they were using broke off in his body; how they decided to throw him in the river when they were done; all played out over shots of the desolate riverbank where the killing took place, pictures of an artist’s rendering of the murder weapon (complete with blood and gore, in case your imagination was failing you) and, in case you hadn’t been punched hard enough in the gut by all this, pictures of the 13-year-old victim smiling in the sunshine. I’ve got a strong stomach for this kind of thing – I’m fascinated by true crime stories, unfazed by horror movies, and spent the best part of two years conducting research into Japan’s death penalty system and its death row inmates – but I turned off the TV midway, because the extent to which this mid-evening news show was wallowing in detail little short of pornographic of the savage brutalising of a child was genuinely, deeply upsetting.
This was “just the facts”. Everything the TV news chose to show was “fact”; the statements of the accused are facts, what they did to the boy is a fact, what the murder weapon looks like is a fact, what the victim looked like when he was happily smiling for the camera the previous summer is a fact. Yet how those facts are presented – the choice of whether to present them, in what order, with what emphasis – is intrinsically a subjective, editorial decision. Contrast the way in which this case is presented with, for example, the reporting of teenagers stabbed in knife crimes in London; “a 13 year old was stabbed to death by a gang of older youths and his body thrown into a river” – absolutely horrific, but shorn of the lingering, stomach-churning descriptions of where he was stabbed, and how they held the knife, and what it looked like when they cut him, and so much other detail that’s purely “fact”, but that makes a huge, powerful impact on how you perceive and think about the case.
Allow me to put this in a little context. In the past few months, Japan has seen a spate of high-profile news broadcasters being removed or shuffled away from their positions. Two of the mainstays of evening news broadcasting, TV Asahi’s Hodo Station and TBS’ News 23, are losing their well-known hosts (Ichiro Furutachi and Shigetada Kishii, respectively), while NHK’s current affairs show Close-Up Gendai has declined to renew the contract of long-standing anchorwoman Hiroko Kuniya. The circumstances and factors contributing to each change differ, but it’s hard to ignore the common thread between them; each of these presenters has been critical of the Abe administration’s policies, especially around the deeply controversial Security Bill which passed late last year. There are other factors in play as well, of course – Kuniya, for example, is almost certainly as much a victim of Japanese TV’s discomfort with allowing older women to front shows, especially shows seen as being aimed at a male audience – but for three such high-profile and long-standing broadcasters, all critical of the Abe administration, to be removed in such a short space of time is quite obviously no coincidence.
To be clear, the removal of these broadcasters is extremely unlikely to have been demanded or ordered by the government. Rather, it is largely a consequence of a chilling effect on press freedom that has come about due to a perception (accurate or not) of the Abe administration being more willing to take reprisals upon its critics – a sense that broadcasters are expected to “play ball” with the administration to a greater extent than before, enforced not by overt censorious action but by expressions of displeasure, criticism and – rather often – by sudden attacks from right-wingers not associated with the government, but willing to make life hell for its media critics. The environment this creates is not quite the authoritarian one Abe’s critics in the foreign press and elsewhere would claim, but neither is it an ideal one for press freedom – it bears a strong similarity to the media environment in countries like the United Kingdom at the moment, for example.
One common defence of this effective narrowing of the media’s broadcasting remit from supporters of the Abe administration is to refer back to Japan’s Broadcast Law, which includes a demand that news broadcasts should be “politically impartial”. Anchors like Furutachi and Kishii, in expressing dislike of the Security Bill or other government policies, are argued to have violated this law by “editorialising” the news they were presenting.
This concept of “editorialising” is profoundly ignorant of how news and current affairs broadcasting actually works, for a number of reasons. Firstly, shows like News 23 and Hodo Station make a distinction between the segments in which they present the news, and the segments in which they comment upon it; if the Broadcast Law is to be interpreted as strictly as conservatives would like, it would appear to be illegal for anyone to ever present an opinion regarding current affairs on Japanese television. “Yes,” say the conservatives, “news and current affairs should be just about facts!” – which is the second reason for this being nonsense, because “facts” themselves are, by their very nature, subject to editorialisation. “Today, the Yen fell against the Dollar” is a fact, of course; but the decision of whether to broadcast that fact, how much prominence to give it and what imagery to accompany it with is intrinsically a subjective, editorial decision, and Japanese TV news, in presenting the “facts”, makes extremely powerful editorial statements without having to directly state any view. That’s exactly what happened with the Kawasaki murder case on last night’s TV; the choice of which facts to present, the level of detail in which to present them and their contextualisation with background images and video added up to a strong editorial approach with a very different impact from, say, the standard reporting of a teenage stabbing in London.
Why report on the Kawasaki case in such grotesque detail? I’d argue that it’s an editorial decision, conscious or otherwise, designed to support the status quo. Japan has an extremely low crime rate but retains a high level of support for the death penalty (one of the only developed countries to do so), a high degree of trust for its justice system despite multiple revelations of abuse and corruption, and an extremely high tolerance of aggressive, authoritarian tactics from its police force. This status quo makes perfect sense if you recognise the essential disconnection between “actual crime” and “fear of crime”; Japanese people are vanishingly unlikely to be the victim of a violent crime, yet their fear of violent crime is, in study after study, higher than the fear of people living in other, far more violent, nations. How do you maintain that? You linger almost lovingly on the gruesome, shocking details of what crime you actually have; you focus on every murder so intently that when people think about crime, it’s not the everyday safety of Japanese life that comes to mind, it’s the one-in-ten-million psychopaths whose crimes are etched onto the nation’s collective imagination.
Japan’s not the only place that happens, of course – and I’m not arguing for a second that this is some grand conspiracy to keep the population in fear, as there’s really no conspiracy needed; gruesome dramatisation of tragic crimes sells newspapers and boosts TV ratings, and supporting the status quo for the authorities is just a side benefit. What I am arguing is that “just the facts” is not a solution to the supposed problem of “editorialising”; it’s merely moving the editorial decisions to a different, more subtle and arguably more insidious level. A news anchor saying “I don’t like this legislation” is a statement you can challenge or disagree with; a news show presenting “just the facts” in a way designed to nudge your thinking in a clear direction is a much tougher thing for most viewers to challenge or even perceive. Next time someone complains about news being “editorialised”, ask them what they really mean by that; because in reality, there’s no such thing as “just the facts”, and the demands of conservatives that news broadcasters stop “editorialising” the news are actually just demands for a different kind of editorialisation – one that supports the conservative status quo.