Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2023.03.08

Off the record should mean off the record

Did an off-the-record remark take down an elite Japanese bureaucrat?

the Japan Times on February 17th, 2023

When Prime Minister Fumio Kishida earlier this month fired a close aide over discriminatory remarks he made about sexual minorities, I was in Hawaii following the news of the shooting down of a Chinese high-altitude spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina by a U.S. F-22 fighter jet.

The U.S. military since the end of World War II has rarely if ever used force in confronting foreign intrusions into U.S. airspace.

Amid rising tensions over China’s spy balloons, news emerged from Tokyo that Kishida fired an aide for telling reporters during an off-the-record session that he wouldn’t want to live next doors to LGBT couples and suggested that some people would flee Japan if same-sex marriage were allowed. Few outside Japan have noticed this bizarre news from Tokyo.

Japan’s major newspapers were unanimously critical of Kishida’s aide. Even the Nikkei, a business daily, wrote in an editorial titled “Discriminatory remarks shake confidence in the administration,” that “The aide lacks a minimum sense of human rights. He deserves to be removed from office.”

No editorials, however, went into how the aide’s remarks — which were supposed to be off-the-record — became public knowledge.

The process of how all of this transpired is puzzling. To be clear, I am by no means trying to defend the content of the remarks. Such discriminatory commentary targeted at the LGBTQ community, if stated in public, deserves a “red card” and is utterly inexcusable.

What is difficult to understand is how the aide’s off-the-record remarks came to be treated as a public on-the-record statement. An essay by Ambassador Kiyotaka Akasaka, a former United Nations under-secretary-general for communications and public information, clarified my doubts about the remarks.

Below are the main takeaways of Akasaka’s essay.

  • The Mainichi Shimbun’s online article stated: “We judged that the way the prime minister’s aide views the issues of human rights is a serious problem. However, reporting his remarks by his real name would be breaking a promise made by the reporter that the interview would be off the record, so the Mainichi informed the aide in advance that he would be quoted by his real name and then it posted the article on its news website before 11 p.m. on Feb. 3.
  • This raises a question. The Mainichi did not explain how the aide responded to its advance notice. The Mainichi did not say that the aide had agreed to reporting the story on the record. If the aide did not agree or was not given an opportunity to respond, then the Mainichi was breaking off-the-record norms and rules. If the aide agreed to go on the record, it does not constitute breaking such rules.
  • If this was a violation of off-the-record norms, the debate now turns to the question, Is it permissible to break such a promise if what was said has serious social implications and if breaking the promise would benefit the greater public good? I myself, having dealt with the media both inside and outside Japan for a long time, feel the breaking of the off-the-record promise is generally not tolerated internationally.

I fully agree with Akasaka’s argument. What happened was that the off-the-record remarks by the prime minister’s aide was unilaterally reported as an on-the-record statement without obtaining his consent, and as a result, the aide was removed from his position.

This is another example of Japanese mass media reporting practices that are out of step with international standards.

It goes without saying that an off-the-record interview is one that is conducted under the promise not to report what was said to the reporter. This promise is not in writing and is customarily made verbally. If the reporter wishes to quote the interviewee by name despite this promise, the reporter must obtain consent from the interviewee.

Although the contents of off-the-record interviews are not supposed to be reported, transcripts are in fact written down by reporters and circulated to a limited number of people. Although this does not constitute a breaking of the so-called rules, the interviewee should be prepared for the reality that there is no such thing as a completely off-the-record interview.

Is breaking off-the-record promise universal?

Under Japan’s civil code, if the Mainichi informs the aide that it wishes to report the story under his real name, it constitutes a request to terminate the verbal agreement, and unless otherwise stipulated, termination is possible with the agreement of both parties. It is unclear whether the aide refused the request or not. In any case, the off-the-record promise does not include the reporter’s right to unilaterally terminate the agreement if the content of the remarks is serious.

No journalists in Western developed countries, let alone those in developing countries, would support the actions of the Mainichi Shimbun. Any reporter who would do such a thing would be in essence declaring him or herself as untrustworthy and not a real journalist, showing a lack of integrity and adherence to ethics.

I myself had a similar experience. Almost 40 years ago, I was involved in a controversy when a reporter broke an off-the-record promise with me. Since then, I realized that such promises hold little weight with Japanese journalists and decided that I would only talk about things that I was allowed to divulge.

In other words, I came to believe that there is no need to talk to reporters who do not keep their promises. Does this mean that Japanese journalists have not made improvements over the past 40 years — or even longer? I would never want to assume that this is the case.

The essence of journalism is to first and foremost report on the facts and, therefore, “checking power” is a byproduct of the former. Some Japanese journalists who do not appreciate this are putting too much priority on the latter and disregarding the former.

In order to extract facts, trust with sources is essential. Breaking the ground rules and norms that go with off-the-record promises could ruin the trust between those being interviewed and journalists.