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[Kim Myong-sik] Hierarchical order, internal authority in jeopardy

In my adult life, I belonged to three kinds of societies, each of which operated in a more or less similar top-down hierarchical order based on authoritarian philosophy.

The first was a newspaper. Media companies generally have a more liberal working milieu than most other jobs open to college graduates. Reporters saved honorifics when talking to seniors and freely smoked cigarettes while discussing work with them, and we were proud of our office culture that was different from, say, financial corporations or chaebol companies.

Yet, there was a demigod sitting in his ground floor office. “The Owner,” or “Wangcho,” was his unofficial title, the latter meaning the boss of an underground group. He alone decided not only who should fill which position in the company, but the figures in our paychecks with which we should survive under rising prices. He often interfered with editors on specific reporting projects.

When I took a government job after early retirement from the newspaper, I witnessed how my staff readjusted their years-old public programs to meet the platforms of the new power holders. To the political appointee descending to their agency, they paid a high degree of reverence at official and private levels alike. The same old tradition of hierarchical control remained in effect to give the new leader the greatest possible discretionary power.

Then, there is the Presbyterian Church where I have experienced fairly authoritarian community relationships. The real, formless God distributes his grace to the congregants and provides the pastor with the authority to preach gospel as well as managerial power necessary to conduct his ministry. God’s servant entrusts the latter part of authority with his human associates called elders, who exercise it in much the same way as in any bureaucratic entity.

These days, strange things are happening to alert my senses adjusted to the authoritarian/hierarchical culture in places where I worked and sought spiritual rest.

Example 1: Choe Nam-su resigned as president of YTN five months after he was appointed to head the cable news channel. More than 95 percent of its 660 employees took part in a no-confidence vote on Choe after months of protests for his alleged misconduct in and out of the office. Choe agreed that he would quit if more than 50 percent wanted him out, and the result was 55.6 percent against him.

YTN’s labor union had begun attacking the new president when he delayed appointing a former YTN reporter as chief of the news bureau despite assurances he would do so upon taking office. The reporter in question was one of six YTN members who had been fired nine years ago for radical protests against then President Lee Myung-bak’s alleged attempts to control the broadcasting business. Three were reinstated via court order last year.

The union retrieved old newspaper columns Choe had written in praise of Lee and other samples critical of former president Roh Moo-hyun and his family to justify their rejection of Choe. Unionists also called Choe a bigamist, citing his co-habitation with a woman before his divorce procedures had been completed. It was the first time the president of a media organization resigned as the result of a no-confidence vote.

Example 2: Hundreds of employees of Korean Air took to the streets wearing masks and holding candles to call for the departure of Chairman Cho Yang-ho and his family from the management of Korea’s national flag carrier. The mass protest at Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, which was joined by many young people, followed media reports of the family members’ irrational behavior of humiliating company employees and service providers.

It also was the first time the employees of a major industrial firm had collectively demanded the exit of the “ownership family” for personal misbehavior instead of business failure. They have also been encouraged by the National Customs Service’s investigation of the Cho family on suspicions of smuggling luxury goods using Korean Air’s passenger and cargo flights.

Example 3: Labor and management at SBS, one of Korea’s four terrestrial broadcasters, reached an unprecedented agreement in October introducing a system of employees’ consent for key appointments. The president of the company needs consent from at least 60 percent of all employees, while the board cannot name the chief programming officer if he is opposed by 60 percent or more of the division or chief of the newsroom by 50 percent or more of its staff.

Example 4: Hong Suk-hyun, chairman of the JoongAng media group operating the JoongAng Ilbo daily and JTBC-TV, recently asked Sohn Suk-hee, news president of the cable channel, to tone down attacks on Samsung Group, which is a major advertiser for both the newspaper and network, according to Media Today. Sohn has defied Hong’s wishes and the TV channel continues to expose Samsung subsidiaries’ alleged accounting fraud, workplace hazards and union suppression.

The JoongAng media group, originally an offshoot from Samsung, faces a dilemma: JoongAng Ilbo leaders want to remove Sohn from the group for his obviously left-leaning stance in directing the JTBC newsroom, where he anchors the main 8 p.m. news, whereas JTBC needs Sohn’s popularity as a trusted journalist to continue its growth. JTBC has already overtaken KBS in the ratings.

Since the change of power a year ago, we have seen how unions at public broadcasters KBS and MBC helped the new government replace presidents appointed by the previous administration. It is pitiful to observe the two giant networks struggle to regain their past stature under threats from cable channels both in news and entertainment.

If the turmoil at Korean Air is a sad denouement of the aberrations of a wealthy family oblivious to social change, the crumbling of hierarchical order at the above media outlets reveals what happened when weak and flawed management fails to withstand the movements of politicized labor to accelerate the change at a time of political transition.

We are not particularly nostalgic about the days when one at the top decided everything to steer an organization ahead. Yet, the old regime had at least one merit, the clarity of the responsibility for all outcomes. SBS and YTN are making dangerous experiments conceding the essential power of top-level appointment to labor while JTBC is taking a big risk by leaving the future of the broadcaster to the popularity of one handsome anchor. 

Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. – Ed.