History does repeat itself. Jeong Yeon-ju, a liberal journalist, took the helm of the state-run Korea Broadcasting System at the start of the Roh Moo-hyun administration in 2003. He was sacked in 2008 in his second term as Lee Myung-bak’s conservative rule began. To force his departure, the new government reshuffled the KBS board, which then charged Jeong with a host of personal misdeeds.
Nine years later, no sooner had Moon Jae-in been elected president in May 2017 than the CEOs of KBS and Munhwa Broadcasting Corp., which has significant indirect state ownership, came under pressure to leave in the middle of their tenures. They both were censured by the new power holders for mismanagement and altering the two major terrestrial networks to serve as mouthpieces for the previous government.
What is peculiar in the current turmoil at the two broadcasters is that radical unionists are in the forefront of the ousters. Reporters, program directors, cameramen and announcers from the multiple labor unions at KBS and MBC went on strike in early September, condemning their presidents as “obstructions to just and righteous broadcasting.”
The process of “making a new MBC” is now nearly complete, as the Broadcast Culture Foundation, the governing body of MBC, now has more members friendly to the new government in its nine-man board. Two directors had resigned after the strike began in September, and the powerful Korea Communications Commission chose a journalism professor and liberal nongovernmental organization activist as their replacements.
The BCF -- also known as Bangmunjin, its Korean acronym -- acted expeditiously last week. It unseated chairman Ko Yeong-ju, a Park Geun-hye appointee, and is poised to appoint a new president. Meanwhile at KBS, Lee In-ho, chairwoman of its 11-seat board, and officials with conservative backgrounds are resisting pressure to resign. The reform scheme is to shift the current 7:4 structure of the board to a 5:6 balance to place the pro-government side in control.
Deeply perturbing are reports that unionists are playing significant roles in the purge. They staged demonstrations at Myungji University, where professor Kang Ji-hyung teaches, and at Bareun law firm, where another board member, Lee Won-il, is a partner, demanding that they leave the KBS board. Kim Kyeong-min, a Hanyang University professor, has already resigned from the board, after similar harassments.
The strikes at the two broadcasters severely affected programming. News and entertainment programs are being shortened and suspended with much air time filled with documentaries and movies. (Some viewers say they like them.) At MBC, the 8 o’clock “News Desk” is the only live news program, but has been cut to 30 minutes, and even “Tonight Live” is being prerecorded. KBS’ prime-time 9 o’clock news has its anchor sit alone without a female companion. “Sport Highlight” is totally gone.
I have rarely watched MBC news since the controversies over the largely inaccurate mad cow disease reporting in 2008, and watched KBS-1 even through the recent upheavals over the candlelight demonstrations.
The decimated schedules of the two strike-torn terrestrial broadcasters led many TV viewers to pick up the remote and switch to cable channels.
The striking workers at the public broadcasters criticize their CEOs for having served the interests of the ruling power, but they now act on behalf of the new power holders in order to force them out. If purges take place at broadcasting organizations whenever power changes, we are forced to watch the products of attempts at political spin by whoever is in control.
In past transitions, the new leadership that vowed “just and righteous broadcasting” quickly moved to cooperate with the power holders, only to be dumped by the next government. The vicious circle has continued over the past few decades of the democratized Republic of Korea. Unions have increased their power in the course of fighting with management that remained unstable under outside interference.
The Democratic Party of Korea, while it was the main opposition group in the National Assembly, proposed legislation to keep the broadcast media from political influence, joined by two other opposition parties. The draft has the number of board members at both KBS and MBC increased to 13, requires a two-thirds majority for the appointment and dismissal of the presidents of public broadcasters and creates programming committees with management and employees evenly sharing seats.
The bill, however, was shelved at the committee stage, as the then-ruling Saenuri Party -- now known as the Liberty Korea Party -- opposed it. President Moon, instead of pushing for its passage, was reported to have ordered a review of the bill that also guarantees completion of tenures for board members while prohibiting their political activities. He probably feared it could boomerang on the new government.
Leadership changes at broadcasting companies in tandem with the changes of political power naturally cause serious internal conflicts. Staff members opposing new management are fired or transferred to irrelevant positions and those who are cooperative are promoted; some with outstanding performances are recruited by parties that value their public familiarity.
The internal conflicts at KBS and MBC, especially the not-infrequent strikes, reduces their credibility. The two companies have three unions each, reflecting their complex history of internal struggles. Gone are the days when opinion surveys gave KBS news the highest reliability, with the company using massive manpower and enormous operational funds that were compensated by top ratings figures.
Viewers can now shift to one of the many cable channels, while younger people are content with the miniature screen in their palms. Still we are sad to see that the once trusted public broadcasters, which helped social advancement with information and entertainment delivered in colorful images, have become the target of public scorn at a time when the print media is challenged by declining finance and influence.
Primarily responsible are political forces that try to use TV as the best medium to reach the public. But conflicts at public broadcasting companies will be repeated rather regularly as long as the government, more precisely the Korea Communications Commission, has the power to appoint members of the KBS board and MBC’s Bangmunjin. The president names all five members of the KCC, including its chairman, one of them with the recommendation from the ruling party, two with the opposition’s.
If KBS and MBC unionists have a justifiable cause for a walkout, it could be pressing the National Assembly to pass a law to resolve this fundamental problem.By Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. -- Ed.