What the UK media taught me about the truth

LONDON —

Reading the newspapers was one of the first things I did after moving to the UK in 2002. Now I read them mainly for my job as a journalist, but also for pleasure.

Before coming to Britain, I was a reporter at the English daily newspaper published by the Yomiuri Shimbun (then the Daily Yomiuri, now The Japan News). Back then, a newspaper was, to me, something I tasked myself to produce to fill a blank space, not an object for the joy of reading.

As soon as I moved to London, I noticed that many passengers on the trains read newspapers—in 2002 at least—in contrast to their Japanese equivalents, who would doze off or look at their mobile phones.

Just as my fellow passengers, I used to pick up the newspapers that had been left behind by the previous readers. I subsequently began to subscribe to newspapers at home and occasionally browsed some of the popular papers that show women’s semi-nude bodies.

I learned that a paper with a daily photo of a woman’s naked breasts, namely The Sun, is not something you can ignore as a journalist, as it reaches a massive readership and therefore has the political power to influence voting during elections, or so it is believed.

It was also enjoyable to read brilliantly splashed headlines in the popular press that mix humor and wordplay.

I learned that British newspapers have clear views on the issues of the day, including ones of a political nature. Neutrality is not required. It is up to readers to decide what to believe or where the “truth” lies. Impartiality is for broadcasters such as the BBC to maintain.

There are varying degrees of political stances in Japanese newspapers as well. For example, my former employer, the Yomiuri Shimbun, has been recognised for its implicit support of the Liberal Democratic Party and conservative political forces in general.

Nevertheless, members of the Japanese press as well as the public believe that newspapers are supposed to be neutral in their editorial stance and writing style.

This is in stark contrast to the British newspapers and their public, who know that the papers are not fully objective and love their media for it.

Last October, the BBC broadcast a television program titled “No Sex Please, We’re Japanese”. Based on the reactions of my Twitter followers, I learned that some people in Japan had assumed the program was offensive without having watched it.

Actually, the segment highlighted the serious issue of aging in Japan, and many of the Japanese living in Britain who had seen the program approved of it.

On the whole, Japanese tend to overreact to stories about Japan in the foreign media. Some of them claim the stories are inaccurate if they don’t like what they see. At the same time, ironically, there is also a blind belief by others that foreign press such as The New York Times are always credible because of their international prestige.

When the Great East Japan Earthquake struck in March 2011, I heard the Japanese media disappointed the public with their coverage of the disaster. Some people said the local media became a public relations machine for the Japanese government, bureaucrats, academia and Tokyo Electric Power Company.

Others criticised the media for not taking sufficient risks in reporting, as the press rigidly observed the government-set rules forbidding entry to dangerous zones.

I was in Britain when the disaster hit. From my home in London, I saw leading British journalists flying to Japan immediately after the crisis to report from the Tohoku region.

Their reports were of a high standard and replete with facts and insight. But the reports by Alex Thomson, a correspondent from Channel 4 News, particularly tugged at my heartstrings.

At one point, the camera showed Thomson standing in rubble. The camera then provided a 360-degree view of the scene surrounding him. Thomson said it was unlikely that anyone would be able to live here for a long, long time.

It was a devastating comment for the villagers from the area, but the panorama showed very plainly that this was the likely outcome. I believe he was one of the first journalists to utter this cruel but truthful comment.

I wonder, if a reporter from a Japanese media outlet were in the same spot at that time, would he be bold enough to say such a thing? Or would he keep his mouth shut so that the report “would not worry the public”, a phrase often used by the authorities as a reason not to reveal the full truth to the media?

“It is up to you to decide what’s what” and “telling the truth, however painful, comes first as a journalist” are among the things I have learned from the British media.

  • -1

    gaijinfo

    Don't kid yourselves. Newspapers and news media have NEVER been neutral, and never will be.

    Stop acting like you're making some genius insight by noticing this.

  • 4

    jerseyboy

    “It is up to you to decide what’s what” and “telling the truth, however painful, comes first as a journalist” are among the things I have learned from the British media

    Exactly. And since Japan has virtually no actual journalists, just reporters who print whatever they get fed by the J-Inc. PR machine, there is only one "truth" there. To seek the truth would first require hard work, and, more importantly, it would require guts, which of course would endanger the publication's sacred membership in their kisha club. For example, Woodward and Bernstein could not possibly have uncovered the Watergate scandal in Japan. They would have simply reported the "truth" that they were spoon-fed.

  • -1

    bass4funk

    Wow! But that's why it's called an "opinion page."

  • 3

    zichi

    I can say I was brought up on British newspapers since I was born even before TV news. Never thought those publications to be neutral. I would buy several each day and all would give their own angle on any story. I have continued to read the same newspapers daily for 50 years, except now I do it online.

    What I get from the Japanese newspapers is that they really all print the same story, usually issued to them from press clubs. At news conferences journalists don't ask questions?

    I think to some degree the quality of western newspapers have improved with the extensive use of on the spot citizen journalism which I haven't noticed here in Japan?

    Also, I only know one women journalist and the country needs to improve on that area.

  • -1

    BNlightened

    "Impartiality is for broadcasters such as the BBC to maintain."

    Ha! Ha-ha! A-ha-ha! Seriously?? I sincerely hope this rather naive-sounding writer does just a wee bit more homework on the "impartiality" of the BBC!

  • 1

    Frungy

    Eiji TakanoFeb. 22, 2014 - 09:57PM JST

    What's so bad about BBC?

    Compared to other media sources it is pretty balanced, but it is far from impartial. I think that the key difference that this reporter missed wasn't in the newspapers, but in the people who read them, as nicely summed up in this comment:

    zichiFeb. 22, 2014 - 03:37PM JST I can say I was brought up on British newspapers since I was born even before TV news. Never thought those publications to be neutral. I would buy several each day and all would give their own angle on any story. I have continued to read the same newspapers daily for 50 years, except now I do it online.

    Education in the U.K. teaches about media bias pretty early on, and even if you slept through that class then it is hard to have a night out with the lads without a reasonably intelligent debate about current issues, and it isn't class-related. I had the most amazing chat with a bus driver during my last visit to the U.K. and he was both well-informed and able to argue his view point without resorting to that most irritating of cop-outs "That's your opinion".

  • 1

    NathalieB

    The difference in the UK and Japan is that British people KNOW which paper leans which way, picks the paper according to their own leanings, and loves their paper for it. Its almost a national joke, knowing what "sort" of people read this paper or that paper with good natured and sometimes not so good natured jibes directed at a Guardian reader from a Telegraph reader, etc.

    But just try telling a Japanese their papers are filthy biased and spoon fed BS from the J PR machine that is the government and/or big business. My husband screamed at me and left m 6 month pregnant and hallfway down Mt Snowden for suggesting just that. Ouch! I think his raw nerves hurt worse than my back that day!

  • 0

    Maria

    I made my newspaper affiliation in my first year at university in the UK. You had to read the papers, if you wanted to know about anything, stay informed, form an opinion, and be able to carry a conversation of any kind.

    A lot of us were just regurgitating and paraphrasing what we'd read that day, so at a pub table full of only Guardian readers, there would be much, but not total, accord; as a Polish saying goes, "2 people, 3 opinions."

    But there we cut our debating teeth. I imagine it starts at a younger age now?

    I believe many uni students in Japan do not read the dailies - at least, not with the intention of gaining knowledge to share over the lunch table.

  • -2

    felix88

    The media interest in making money, not the truth most of the time, at least something like thedailymail has some good stuffs.

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