Blue House (South Korea’s equivalent to the White House) spokesman Lee Dong-kwan fired an unusual broadside against a public broadcaster and its staffers yesterday as controversy grew over the prosecution’s Thursday indictment of producers and a scriptwriter for MBC’s “PD Diary,” (or PD Notebook) an investigative television newsmagazine.
The disputed April 2008 episode concerned the risk of contracting the human form of mad cow disease from eating American beef.
“All [MBC] executives are supposed to apologize to the TV audience and step down,” Lee said in a press briefing. “Broadcasters must take responsibility even for minor misreporting. But when it has been revealed that [MBC] ran distorted content that caused social chaos, blaming the investigation for a politically motivated probe would be like putting the cart before the horse.”
On Tuesday, prosecutors wrapped up their year-long investigation into the disputed TV show.
The broadcast prompted months-long nationwide candlelight vigils against U.S. beef imports, causing 3 trillion won ($2.4 billion) in estimated damages.
Indicting four producers and one scriptwriter for the show, an equivalent of “60 Minutes” in the United States, the prosecution concluded that those MBC workers deliberately created a biased report on the safety of U.S. beef, thus defaming then Agriculture Minister Chung Woon-chun and other government officials and trade negotiators. Chung filed a complaint with the Supreme Public Prosecutors’ Office.
Almost immediately after the indictments, the PD Diary staff claimed that the investigation was “politically motivated” at the order of the government and infringed on the “freedom of the press.”
Main opposition Democratic Party leader Chung Sye-kyun also said in a meeting with his party executives yesterday that by indicting the producers of PD Diary the prosecution has again shown its politically tilted scheme.
“The government has indicted [those producers] on charges of libel and interference in a business even when criticizing government policies is the media’s foremost mission,” he said. “Wouldn’t that mean the government is threatening broadcasters not to run programs criticizing the government?”
Regarding accusations that the incumbent administration is suppressing the media, spokesman Lee said, “You might remember even middle and high school students poured out into the streets for the candlelit vigils last year, holding placards saying ‘MB Out’ in English. You saw that scene on TV. Do you think that would be possible in a country that suppresses freedom of the press?”
The former newspaper journalist said that having subjective judgment overwhelm objectivity without adequate gatekeeping is not part of the media’s function.
“It’s the same as letting a drunk person drive a car,” he said.
“Media won’t be media if they only want to criticize and not assume reasonability, or they want to see things with a subjective perspective,” he continued. “As the president has repeatedly said, we don’t want the media to side with the administration. What we want the media to do is apologize for wrongdoings, if any, and improve their quality of service.”
As an example of the media’s supposed lack of social responsibility, Lee said that some broadcasters are running dramas with allegedly immoral content during prime time to capture ratings.
“Those who oppose the media reform bill claim that its passage will lessen the quality of TV programs,” he said. “But aren’t both public and private broadcasters already running dramas with extremely questionable content even during hours when all family members watch TV?”
The media bill refers to a measure that would allow private businesses and newspapers to own terrestrial broadcasters. The ruling Grand National Party and the DP have wrangled over the passage of the bill.
The DP has claimed the reform will only allow the government to expand its control over the media. The party on Thursday broke an agreement with the GNP to vote on the passage of the bill next week. GNP says it may open the session on its own.
Meanwhile, the Seoul Central District Court said yesterday it has entrusted the case involving the MBC workers to a single judge. “Those charged with defamation are usually sentenced to a prison term of one year or shorter or a fine. In that case, a single judge is allocated to the case,” said a court spokesman. (JoongAng Daily)