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‘PD Notepad’ seeks to return as king in investigative journalism

Despite controversies surrounding it, MBC’s “PD Notepad” has long been synonymous with investigative TV journalism in South Korea.

It has touched on thorny issues, uncovering Hwang Woo-suk’s stem cell research fraud and claiming in 2008 that US beef imports posed risks from mad cow disease.

With the conservative administrations of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye muzzling criticisms against them, however, the program had all but lost its edge, with rival programs such as SBS’s “I Want to Know About it” and Hankyoreh TV-based “Papa Is!” dislodging it from its spot as the boldest and most risk-taking investigative program here. 

Production staff members of MBC’s “PD Notebook” participate in a press conference on Thursday. (MBC)
Production staff members of MBC’s “PD Notebook” participate in a press conference on Thursday. (MBC)

“Our goal is to ensure that by the end of this year we are considered the No. 1 program to which (viewers) want to report their cases,” said Han Hak-soo, an MBC producer who is also the new host of the show.

Han represents what the network views as a dream team to bring the show back to its heyday of the late 2000s and early 2010s. Han was at the center of the “PD Notepad” investigative team that unearthed the Hwang scandal.

In recent years, however, Han had been diverted to managing MBC-owned skating rinks and organizing county fairs. It was later revealed he was included in the Lee administration’s blacklist of media figures.

“I feel tremendous pressure making my return (to ‘PD Notepad’) after 12 years. I believe that if we take one step at a time, and remember how we started off, we will be able to regain the trust (of viewers). We will show you what we really are,” he said. 

Han Hak-soo, the new host for MBC‘s “PD Notebook,” poses for a photo before a press conference Thursday. (MBC)
Han Hak-soo, the new host for MBC‘s “PD Notebook,” poses for a photo before a press conference Thursday. (MBC)

He said that MBC had changed, with the entire production team freely debating any and all issues, which he said “was how MBC is supposed to be.”

Times have indeed changed with liberal President Moon Jae-in in power. At MBC’s helm is Choi Seung-ho, a former producer who was fired in 2012 after a dispute with the company. The production staff at the time complained that then-MBC chief Kim Jae-chul had abused his position to promote the administration. Kim is currently being investigated on related charges.

Despite the team’s resolve, it has been nearly a decade since the program fell out of relevance. The production staff said it will continue to work toward building a reputation among youngsters.

“Communicating with the younger generation is our never-ending task. I think (our status) right now may be due to the lack of strong (news) items,” said producer Park Keon-woo. He noted that investigative reporting team of rival channel JTBC reached its peak with its reporting on the Choi Soon-sil scandal.

“Our show will discuss important public issues, rather than focus on fun. We will focus on the underprivileged,” Park said.

The show’s aggressive style of reporting has invited controversy, particularly during its heyday. Its supporters have called it an effort in finding the truth, while detractors have deemed it as smearing public figures for the sake of its own glory.

Han said that his team will work to avoid lawsuits if possible, but vowed not to back down from a fight if necessary.

“I don’t think being sued a lot is something to brag about. But if we avoid getting our hands dirty, and do not record, that’s not ‘PD Notepad,’” he said. Han added that the show will put more effort on covering both sides of an argument.

The first issue will be about Stellar Daisy, the ill-fated cargo ship that sank in the South Atlantic with eight Korean and 16 Filipino crew members. The episode covers peoples’ concern over the government’s ability to protect its citizens, which was aggravated by the 2014 Sewol ferry tragedy.

The following episode will be about the scandal surrounding the National Intelligence Service, which was revealed to have kept a blacklist of cultural, media and other figures during the past two administrations. It is to touch upon issues inherent to democracy.

Han hinted his team will work on unearthing relevant issues.

“We brought out the big guns, so we will be going after the big thieves,” he said.

“PD Notepad” airs 11 p.m. on Tuesdays on MBC.

By Yoon Min-sik