MBC said it painfully accepts responsibility upon the Supreme Court’s judgment of falsity in its investigative report aired on April 27, 2008 concerning a bilateral accord for imports of U.S. beef. The broadcaster should have made a public apology for its inaccurate reporting on mad cow disease in the United States three years and four months earlier.
Even the apology was only a minor part of the network’s response to the top court’s ruling on Friday. The general mood among its 3,800 employees and executives was victorious at the end of a long court battle. To them, more important was the final acquittal of the five staff members responsible for the controversial program, PD’s Notebook, which meant a triumph of the freedom of expression.
The full 14-justice panel, presided over by Chief Justice Lee Yong-hoon for the last time before his retirement this month, produced two verdicts. On the seven points of request for correction, filed by the Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the highest court accepted three. On the criminal charges of defaming a former agriculture minister and other authorities, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling that the TV program, despite its partial inaccuracy, did not constitute malicious attack on the alleged victims as the reporting was in pursuit of the public interest.
The ambivalent ruling that more or less reflected the precarious left-right balance in the nation’s top court elated the five staffers who were once arrested for their production of “Urgent Reporting! Is U.S. Beef Safe from Mad Cow Disease?” in the PD’s Notebook series. If they had any compunction about the falsity confirmed by the court, it was not shown in their initial reaction. They denounced “politicized prosecutors” who they said deserve punishment. MBC’s labor union welcomed the Supreme Court ruling as “the natural result of righteousness.”
The controversy over the mad cow disease that rocked the nascent Lee Myung-bak administration in the summer of 2008 and provided political energy for the resurgence of the leftists after their election defeat the previous winter has legally come to an end. Yet, the people in the broadcaster, from executives to producers and reporters, now need to do some deep soul-searching to see what part of the company’s public apology they should share.
Falsity has been established in the video clip of downer cows which the TV program indicated to be infected with mad cow disease, in the interview of an American woman who was portrayed to be revealing (contrary to what she actually said) that her daughter died of vCJD ― the human form of mad cow disease ― and in the preposterous statement that Koreans were genetically highly susceptible to the disease. There were numerous other exaggerations and inaccuracies but MBC has rejected requests for correction from the agriculture ministry and decisions of the Press Arbitration Commission.
Journalism textbooks say one mistake in 100 facts brings down the credibility of the whole story and its author. Every cub reporter is told by the editor 10 times everyday to check and check the facts. Sensational journalism generates doubts instead of trying to resolve questions, and it is worst when malicious intent creeps into any investigative reporting. Our top judges dismissed malicious intent in producing the mad cow disease program, but we believe that the PD’s Notebook team members should ask their own conscience to have the true answer to this question.
As Chung Woon-chun, former agriculture minister, noted, not a single case of mad cow disease has been reported in the United States, not to mention a vCJD case, since the 2008 turmoil in Korea, and U.S. beef is being consumed here without trouble along with Australian, New Zealand and Korean products. This delivers a simpler verdict than the difficult judgment the court has sought over the past three years.
A great deal of national energy has been expended over the issue but not all is wasted if we consider the lesson the turmoil gave the media community in general and administration officials who might have painfully realized the importance of public communication on matters of human subsistence.