INTERNATIONAL: INTERNATIONAL ISSUES; Japan’s largest broadcaster faces crisis after cult scandal

TBS has got inextricably caught up in the trial of a cult, David Kilburn writes

TBS has got inextricably caught up in the trial of a cult, David Kilburn writes

A massive trial for the Japanese doomsday cult accused of last year’s

underground railway gas attacks, plus a string of brutal murders, has

precipitated a crisis for Japan’s largest television broadcaster, the

Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS).

The crisis was brewing last March, when rumours started to circulate

that TBS had allowed the cult, Aum Shinri Kyo, to preview programmes

made about the group. This was strenuously denied by the broadcaster and

an in-house investigation was called which declared TBS squeaky clean.

Meanwhile, the president of the network, summoned to testify before

Japan’s parliament, confidently denied all charges.

Then, however, Aum’s prosecutors produced a notebook kept by a senior

member of the cult. This logged a secret meeting at TBS in November

1989, apparently to vet a programme containing interviews with Tsutsumi

Sakamoto, a lawyer who made embarrassing revelations about the group.

Within days of the meeting, the programme had been cancelled and the

lawyer and his family had mysteriously disappeared. An Aum badge found

on the floor of their home amid signs of a struggle was the only clue to

their fate. TBS executives denied that there was any link between these


The cult is reported to have gone on to build a plant to manufacture

Sarin, a nerve gas developed by the Nazis, a munitions factory and

apparatus to spray tetanus spores from high buildings. Then, to hasten

the Apocalypse, in March 1995 Aum released Sarin into subways and

stations, killing 12 people and injuring thousands more.

The Aum notebook revelations did, however, bring about a quick reversal

in TBS’s public stance. Corporate Japan’s ‘abject apology procedure’ was

invoked. The president of TBS resigned, a few heads rolled and the

company asked for the public’s understanding. In a side-show, the TV

producers who were implicated maintained they had ‘no clear

recollections’ of events that day in November 1989. Nevertheless, the

well-oiled rituals of apology failed to work for TBS this time.

The Minister of Posts and Telecommunications issued a written reprimand

and went on TV to say that while TBS had not violated the letter of the

laws regulating broadcasters, it had breached the spirit. He also lashed

out at it for covering up events.

‘The fact that TBS, as a broadcasting company whose mission is to pursue

and broadcast the truth, could not uncover the facts of what happened

within the company itself, undermines its raison d’etre as an organ of

public opinion,’ he said.

This was taken as a strong hint that TBS’s licence might not be renewed,

and the broadcaster swung into loss-limitation mode. It announced a

voluntary suspension of late-night broadcasting for a total 15 hours, to

show remorse, and said it would stop airing day-time investigative


TBS’s ratings have held up through the fiasco and only one advertiser

has pulled out, but its share price has dropped significantly. It is

becoming clear, though, that while the Aum trial is expected to last

another decade, TBS - in its present form - is not.