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MBC Using Stall Tactics in Beef Report Debacle

Posted July. 10, 2008 08:44,   


Munhwa Broadcasting Corp. has reportedly adopted a stalling tactic to counter criticism of its investigative TV magazine “PD Notebook,” which is under fire for distorting facts on the safety of U.S. beef.

The broadcast network has held a series of meetings on what to do, but has apparently decided to do nothing since a hasty admission of wrongdoing could negatively affect the investigation into the case and the ruling of the Korea Communications Commission.

The meetings have been attended by some 10 senior producers involved in the program, including head producer Cho Neung-hee and attorney Kim Hyeong-tae. The results of the meetings have reportedly been briefed to MBC President Um Ki-young and management.

The program is under criminal investigation after the Agriculture Ministry filed a complaint. The communications commission is also deliberating if the program’s report was done in a fair and objective manner. The commission has delayed a scheduled statement on the program’s staff to Wednesday next week at MBC’s request.

▽ Delay tactics

When MBC officials gathered for a second time on June 29, some of them said that if the program admits it made a mistake, its opponents will abuse the admission rather than accept it. If management recognizes even a small mistake, people will think MBC has committed a grave wrongdoing and public disappointment and attacks will ensue, they said.

The prevailing opinion was that MBC needed to react to moves by prosecutors instead of taking the initiative.

On the internal investigation into the program, one source said, “The fact that MBC will carry out an independent probe or make any announcement to that effect will cause people to think mistakes were made in the program.”

One countermeasure proposed at the first meeting June 27 was to buy time without apology or admission of guilt.

Another stall tactic was to refuse prosecution summons once or twice and boldly respond at the first court trial June 30.

▽ Owning up to mistakes

A smaller number of MBC staff said the network should come to terms with its own faults and move on.

“If prosecutors launch an investigation in full swing and suggest the program had a hidden agenda, the time will likely come when we will have to admit our faults,” one staff member said. “Rather than wait for the forthcoming disaster, it’s better to come forward and admit out mistakes.”

Another MBC staff with the minority opinion said the network will be blamed for sitting passively by or lacking a review process. “Countering the government head-on is one way, but in that case, we should consider the government’s privatization move,” he said.

▽ Countermeasures vs. probe

At the June 30 meeting, MBC staff proposed a measure to make the most of outside organizations like the national producers’ association or the National Union of Media Workers, instead of responding to the media watchdog.

They also agreed to urge outside organizations to prepare news conferences and a picket line to influence the commission’s deliberation.

If the commission’s ruling was “advice,” they planned to have the media union or the producers’ association express regret. In case of “warning,” they decided on appeal or administrative lawsuit.

Though diverting the investigation by filing libel suit will be difficult, MBC said it will thoroughly prepare for a probe. Measures include coming up with answers to likely prosecutor questions by analyzing the probe’s direction.

For example, they have reportedly prepared explanations on why the program omitted that a recall of U.S. beef targeted second-rate beef or who advised the program not to inform viewers that infection was another possible cause of an American woman’s death. The program had suggested that she could have died of mad cow disease.

▽ Information sharing

An MBC insider who attended the meetings said, “They were to share information. We could make no decisions because at the time, the dates for the prosecution investigation or the commission’s deliberation had not yet been set.”

“The prosecution said it found evidence that ‘PD Notebook’ distorted the truth, but we have ample data to refute the allegation,” he said, “We are considering airing a program to clear the controversy July 15 or 22.”

With the content of the discussions at the meetings disclosed, criticism is brewing that MBC is buying time though internally, it has admitted to making mistakes. Some are also raising suspicion that the meetings play a main role because MBC has acted according to the decisions made at the meetings.

“When what was discussed at the meetings was made public, MBC employees were shocked. It seems management has lost an opportunity to resolve the issue because it relied on opinions from the program’s staff,” said a senior producer.

suhchoi@donga.com kyle@donga.com