Instead the opposite is true – sharing of information and reporting based on the consensus of journalists from ostensibly rival news companies is in fact the norm. This cooperation often plays a major role from the outset of most journalists’ careers. Often novice reporters are sent to cover important personalities as their first assignment. Their job as so-called ban journalists is to follow an important political figure all day in order to gain snippets of news. Such close proximity unavoidably leads to a close relationship between journalist and politician.
Reporters are often invited into politicians’ houses and are expressly told by their employers to foster close ties with the politician and his family, and should strive to become close friends. Ban journalists do not however follow their assigned politician around alone – as all major news organisations dispatch ban journalists, the daily ritual is performed within a group. Reporters often spend several years on such assignments which gives rise to two dilemmas that affect the journalist’s ability to report freely.Order now
The first relates to the close relationship of correspondents to the politicians they are covering. One of the inherent problems of the media in a democratic state, especially if the media is supposed to take on the role of the “Fourth Estate”, that of a watchdog over the political establishment, is that in order to be able to report on and gain news about politicians it must conduct affairs und build trusting relationships with exactly the people it is trying to monitor. Ban journalists exemplify this quandary.
Compared to western journalistic standards, the close relationships they form with politicians have allowed them in the past to gain unprecedented access to the inner sanctums of government and have in some instances resulted in information that if published would have amounted to a scandal. This is however the disadvantage of having such close ties with the politician one ought to be critically reporting on; the fact that journalists cultivate such friendly relationships means that it becomes harder for them to write negative stories.
This raises concerns of morality and journalistic responsibility that are relevant in other situations. Kisha clubs are not simply institutions in which press conferences are held and briefings handed out; as is the case with ban journalists, most reporters who are members of a kisha club spend more time in their club surrounded by journalists from rival publications than they do at their own news company. This has led to the second problem that affects the press’ ability to function independently.
The disproportionately high amount of time that is spent with rival journalists in the club often results in reporters identifying more with their club and fellow (rival) club members than with their colleagues. Strong ties amongst club journalists are increased by the large number of social events organised by the club. Depending on what organisation the club is attached to, journalists will be invited to banquets, golf games or may for example have to accompany a politician on a tour where reporters are frequently housed in expensive hotels.
The costs for these social events are mostly covered by the organisation the kisha club is attached to. The atmosphere organisations and companies strive to create is one in which journalists will become indebted to whomever they are covering; if in doubt they would rather simply ignore issues that would usually be investigated further if reporters were fully independent. In some instances reporters have received free train passes, wine or other gifts from the organisations they are covering – in one case journalists were sent home with envelopes that later turned out to contain i??
20,000 (Freeman, 2000:81). What is unique to the Japanese system of clubs is what action is taken and, more importantly by whom, when a journalist oversteps his mark and breaks one of the rules of the club. Although there is a written charter that sets out regulations that members must adhere to, in almost all cases they do not pertain to specific actions or boundaries members should not violate but instead state simply that journalists that “harm the honour of the club through their actions” should face punishment.
This clause, that requires a considerable amount of interpretation before it can be implemented, highlights one of the other peculiarities of the kisha club system – the manner in which sanctions on club members are passed. The accepted norm in western systems is that the source, in other words the politician or government agency, becomes active and punishes the journalist by barring him from press conferences for example.
This admittedly happens rarely, especially not in the US where the constitutional right to a free press is a much championed cause. The Westminster Lobby which is often equated to the kisha club system also includes provisions for parliament to expel journalists, although it has never done so in its 117 year history. The fundamental difference between the practices governing sanctions is that in Japan it is rarely the source that decides whether or not a member should be punished, but instead the journalists amongst themselves.