By Akira Ikegami, former NHK announcer and prominent author and TV commentator
How did the newspapers report the sudden news of dissolution of the House of Representatives for a general election?
Asahi Shimbun’s morning edition on Sept. 17 led with a story with the headline “Prime Minister mulling dissolution before yearend.” It stated in the text of the report: “Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told senior ruling party officials that he is now considering dissolving the Lower House before the end of this year” and “This was revealed by several senior administration officials.”
Asahi probably obtained information from unnamed “senior administration officials.”
Nikkei on the same day carried a story on page one with the title “Growing possibility of early Lower House dissolution,” reporting that, “Senior Komeito officials held a meeting on Sept. 16 and shared the view that dissolution before yearend is now an option. In light of this, Komeito’s main support group Soka Gakkai will hold a meeting on election strategy on Sept. 17.”
Nikkei must have judged that since Komeito and Soka Gakkai were rushing preparations for a general election, early dissolution of the Lower House would be unmistakable.
On the other hand, Sankei Shimbun’s stop story on the same day declared that “Prime Minister decides to dissolve Lower House.”
This expression indicated that the paper probably heard directly from Abe. This would be quite possible for a newspaper that consistently supports Abe.
However, Sankei wrote in the report that “Komeito’s main support group Soka Gakkai held an emergency meeting of its regional chiefs at noon on Sept. 16.” It probably obtained the news from a Soka Gakkai source.
Unfortunately, it claimed that the election would “most likely take place on Oct. 29.” This turned out to be inaccurate.
Meanwhile, Tokyo Shimbun reported that “it is widely believed in the ruling parties that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is mulling dissolving the Lower House for a general election before the end of 2017, and full-fledged preparations are now underway. The Lower House is expected to be dissolved at the beginning of the extraordinary Diet session convening on Sept. 28, at the earliest.”
It was more specific than Sankei’s conjecture that dissolution would come “within a few days of the start of the extraordinary Diet session.”
Kyodo News, which dispatches news to regional papers, also reported on this. Copies of the Chugoku Shimbun (based in Hiroshima City) and Shinano Mainichi Shimbun (based in Nagano City) that I have on hand reported this as the top story on the same day: “The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and Komeito have begun vigorous preparations for an election in light of their belief that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is now considering dissolving the Lower House for a general election within this year as an option. Komeito held an emergency meeting of its senior officials in Tokyo on Sept. 16 where they agreed that dissolution could come at the beginning of the extraordinary Diet session on Sept. 28 or after the three Lower House by-elections on Oct. 22.” Komeito appeared to be its information source.
How about Yomiuri Shimbun? This paper did not carry a report on page one. It merely published an obscure story in the middle of page two with the headline “Talk of early dissolution emerging in the ruling parties.” How come it lagged way behind the other papers? Did the paper not receive any signals from Abe?
Even if it had not been provided with information from Abe, it would still have been able to catch the information if it had done its homework with Komeito.
As for Mainichi Shimbun, it published a tiny story at the bottom of page two on LDP General Council Chairman Wataru Takeshita stating in a speech that “all Lower House members are beginning to think” that the dissolution of the Lower House for an election “would not be far away.” Takeshita also said he thought “an election might be approaching.” That was all.
Other reporters should have gotten the hint from these remarks and rushed off to confirm the news.
This put to the test the caliber of reporters, who should have an extensive network of information sources and who should be sensitive to every single word uttered by politicians.
Nevertheless, common sense indicates that the dissolution of the Lower House at this time was not really justified. Perhaps they cannot be blamed for failing to keep up with Abe’s abrupt change of mind. (Slightly abridged)