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.