NHK wins lawsuit over fees, should review its role as public broadcaster

The Yomiuri ShimbunIt is only when NHK carries out its purpose of public broadcasting — providing good-quality programs all over the country — that the broadcaster can win public acceptance of its reception fees.

The Supreme Court’s Grand Bench has made a judgment for the first time on the constitutionality of NHK’s reception fee system.

The ruling recognized the rationality of the reception fee system, saying that the mechanism “was adopted to satisfy the people’s right to know, under the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution.” Also, regarding a provision of the Broadcast Law requiring television set owners to sign subscription contracts with NHK, the Grand Bench concluded that the provision “is necessary to make fee collection fair.”

Relying on the fees to provide the revenue for operating its business means that the public broadcaster is financially neither controlled nor affected by the state, specific individuals or groups. The latest ruling can be viewed as having taken account of NHK’s unique quality of being supported by a burden assumed widely and fairly, as well as of its raison d’etre as a public broadcaster.

The broadcaster filed a lawsuit against a man who owned a television set at home, demanding that he sign a viewing contract with NHK. He had refused to do so, saying that the contract “should be concluded based on the viewer’s intentions.”

The ruling also states, “It is desirable for NHK to make efforts to win the understanding of those who have installed TV sets so that viewing contracts can be concluded with them accordingly.”

NHK must take this point seriously. It is essential for the public broadcaster to further improve its news coverage and TV programs that contribute to public welfare, such as disaster information.

Streamline operations

Needless to say, NHK is required to provide news coverage in a fair and impartial manner. If inappropriate stage-management in its news and information programs or biased content become conspicuous, the foundations of the reception fee system will fall apart.

In the wake of a series of scandals, including a misappropriation of funds earmarked for production costs, the number of people who refused to pay the reception fees increased. As of the end of March, the fee payment rate stood at 79 percent. It is estimated that about 9 million households nationwide have not signed subscription contracts.

The top court has also ruled the contract will come into effect when NHK wins a confirmed victory in the lawsuit it files against a person who has not signed the contract. As far as the law provision goes, the TV set owners’ obligation to pay the fees will arise retroactively from the month they installed the TV sets.

For NHK, it will become easier to collect the fees. There will also likely be room for the broadcaster to reduce costs in its fee-collection work.

With an expected increase in revenues from the reception fees, won’t NHK be swollen further than presently? It is also feared that the broadcaster’s effort to streamline its operations may become neglected.

NHK plans to start a new project of distributing its TV programs simultaneously via the internet, as early as fiscal 2019. It has also launched a project of broadcasting in both 4K and 8K high definition.

Should NHK’s businesses expand in an uncontrolled manner, it will have an impact on private industry. Rather than rushing ahead with its business expansion, the public broadcaster should prioritize discussing cuts in its reception fees.

Taking the opportunity presented by the top court’s ruling, NHK should reexamine, with an open mind, how it should be like as a public broadcaster.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec. 7, 2017) Speech


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