Effectively above reproach since the end of the war, the rather staid approach that Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) uses to deliver the news has for years been seen as sign of its solidity, while its refusal to "dumb down" - employ newscasters simply for their looks or focus on the activities of the celebrity of the day - used to lift it above the coverage of its commercial rivals.

But in the past month, more Japanese - who fund NHK's radio and television programmes with annual licence fees - have found reasons to turn off.

"What has gone on there is bad and it has hurt the company's image," Mutsuko Tsuyuki, a housewife from Yokohama, said.

"People aren't happy with the scandals because it is us who pay every year. It's like a tax and now we have found out that it has been spent on personal expenditures for NHK staff, then that makes people even more angry."

Slammed doors

The six-month licence fee for a colour television is Y7,650 ($70) and everyone with a TV that can receive NHK is expected to pay, under the terms of the Broadcast Law.

NHK employs a small army of officials who descend upon entire neighbourhoods to knock on doors and collect the levy.

Refusal to dumb down standards
had put NHK in a class of its own

But because they do not have the legal right to force a householder to pay up, more and more are finding the door slammed in their face.

Public-relations officials from the broadcaster admitted to the Asahi newspaper that an estimated 13,000 people who had previously paid their bills had suddenly changed their mind and refused to pay between 20 July and 8 September. Complaints were also received from another 6512 people.

On 7 September, the corporation announced that its entire board would take a pay cut to accept responsibility for the recent scandals.

Those embarrassments included the suspension of the corporation's bureau chief in Seoul for padding expenses and allegedly pocketing the difference, poor accounting at the Tohoku bureau, and two producers claiming expenses for a business trip that they never went on.

Most damagingly, chief producer Katsumi Isono was fired in July for embezzling nearly Y49 million ($450,000) - about seven years' salary for the average Japanese - from his programme budget and handing the money to the head of an event-planning company that never performed any work for NHK.

Apology rendered

NHK Chairman Katsuji Ebisawa, who punished himself with a reprimand and a 30% pay cut for three months, appeared before the Diet earlier in September to apologise for damaging the public's faith in the corporation.

"The incident has caused the people and viewers to lose trust in the public broadcaster," he told the Diet. "I apologise deeply for the great concern and inconvenience that has been caused."

"It used to be that everyone trusted what NHK reported, but I'm not so sure anymore"

Mutsuko Tsuyuki,
Yokohama housewife

He added, however, that the Metropolitan Police Department is now conducting an investigation and could not rule out more impropriety coming to light.

NHK, which stands for Nippon Hoso Kyokai, is Japan's only government-operated broadcaster and reported revenue of Y648 billion ($594 million) in 2003. A mere Y8 billion ($73 million) of that was profit, however, because the main corporation supports 36 subsidiaries, including a software arm and a publishing unit.

The subsidiaries employ more than 5500 people across the country, including 414 executives, and opposition politicians took the opportunity of Ebisawa's appearance in the Diet to point the finger of blame at management rather than the staff.

Reputation tarnished

"There is a view that the current fraud cases, such as the embezzlement of production money by employees, is the result of employees' personal problems, but I do not believe that is the case," Hisayasu Nagata, of the Democratic Party of Japan, told the Shukan Post weekly.

"In order to increase the special interests of subsidiaries and protect positions for people retiring from its headquarters, NHK has allowed those subsidiaries really fat," he charged.

Among NHK's 36 subsidiaries are
software and publishing units

"It is no wonder that people think they are stealing the subscription fees. Problems throughout the entire organisation of NHK have been dragged to the surface by these scandals."

Its reputation within Japan's media circles has also taken some beating.

"The quality of NHK's news has always been quite good, politically balanced between left and right, even if it is a little old-fashioned, but I don't feel like watching their channels anymore," Shiro Saito, a journalist with the Bunshun weekly, said. "If you can't trust their journalists, how can you trust their news?"

The magazine has run a series of articles since late July attacking the broadcaster's misuse of public funds, claiming that another producer had skimmed Y80 million ($734,000). NHK denied that report.

Changing perception

Other magazines quickly took up the opportunity to assault NHK, with the Shukan Post claiming that other companies were coerced into taking part in an exhibition sponsored by NHK and others attacking wastefulness through having more staff and facilities involved in projects than are needed.

"The quality of NHK's news has always been quite good, politically balanced between left and right, even if it is a little old-fashioned, but I don't feel like watching their channels anymore"

Shiro Saito,
journalist, Bunshun weekly

Even though they earn less than their counterparts on commercial TV channels, staff on NHK's news and documentary programmes have always seen themselves as the best in the business, Saito said, but that perception is changing now.

And if its integrity is being called into question, some are questioning what it has left.

"NHK isn't really a popular channel as young people don't watch it," said Yokohama housewife Tsuyuki.

"The commercial channels have to be fun and exciting because they're funded by advertising and the ratings for shows are very important to them, but that has never been a concern for NHK because it has always received the fee from viewers, whether they are watching the programmes or not.

She added: "It used to be that everyone trusted what NHK reported, but I'm not so sure anymore."