KOREA: MBC faces crisis over report

Citizens urge investigation and prosecution of parties involved in the coercion of Hwang's associates

The Korea Herald
Wednesday, December 7, 2005

By Kwon Ji-young

MBC-TV is under attack nationwide and facing its biggest crisis over a program questioning stem-cell pioneer Hwang Woo-suk's work and its own ethical reporting lapses.

Political parties and citizens alike have been virtually unanimous in criticizing MBC-TV for casting a shadow on Hwang's research, for disclosing he used ova donated by his junior researchers to develop stem cells, and for questioning the validity of his work.

What put MBC-TV under even more scrutiny was a public apology the partly state-owned broadcaster made on Sunday, saying the program "PD Notebook" violated journalistic ethics while investigating Hwang's research.

The apology came after two researchers from Hwang's team said the producers of "PD Notebook" used coercion, manipulation and hidden cameras to secure recorded interviews unfavorable to Hwang.

It was the seventh time this year that MBC has apologized for ethical breaches and the contents of one of its broadcasts.

Since the remarks made by the researchers were aired during an interview with YTN, a cable news network, MBC has been severely pounded by citizens, politicians and scientists.

The nation's broadcasting commission and the company are discussing different measures to deal with the crisis, including punishing the producers and possibly their supervisors. In similar cases in the past, producers and reporters have been fired or suspended from their duties after their broadcasts stirred controversy.

There has been heated public debate on how MBC-TV should take responsibility for its unethical reporting and the harm it has done to Hwang's reputation, as well to the nation's image as a whole.

In a survey of more than 1,000 people by Yahoo Korea Monday, some 97 percent said MBC should take legal responsibility, while only 2 percent said an apology was enough.

Citizens have also urged the prosecution to investigate MBC-TV for allegedly blackmailing and defaming Hwang and his team.

Political parties joined in condemning MBC-TV. "It is wrong for journalists to attempt to verify scientific research," said lawmaker Won Hye-young of the ruling Uri Party. "The verification should be done by an officially recognized scientific agency."

Lawmaker Park Chan-sook of the main opposition Grand National Party said, "This incident cannot be resolved with one apology. MBC's promise that they will 'clearly take responsibility' for their ethical breaches should signify the resignation of the entire MBC management."

On Nov. 24. Hwang apologized and resigned from all his official posts after "PD Notebook" reported that Hwang's team used ova from women on his own staff to conduct the research. The professor said he did not mention the ova from his researchers because he was respecting their wishes to remain anonymous.

After Hwang's apology, about 100 people supporting him staged a candlelit vigil in front of the MBC building in Seoul, threatening to boycott the products of MBC's prime-time advertisers unless it apologized and punished the producers of "PD Notebook."

All 12 sponsors of the show canceled their commercials after Hwang supporters posted a list of the companies on the internet and ran campaigns against them.

Even before YTN's broadcast about the ethical breaches was made on Sunday, public approval of MBC-TV was in decline after a series of events that damaged its reputation

In one case, MBC-TV stirred up public controversy and was forced to apologize for making it appear that filming done over two days was conducted over a three-day period and for using a clip from a Chinese movie as if it were the broadcaster's own.

Moreover, a reporter at MBC-TV had to apologize for accepting a luxury handbag as a bribe to make the broadcaster withdraw a report.

Other incidents that have prompted apologies include mishaps during live broadcasts such as a rock group stripping during a music program.

However, despite the recent controversies, "PD Notebook" has also had several breakthrough reports this year, one of which was the disclosure in July of illegally wiretapped tapes made by the National Intelligence Agency, which launched the prosecution's X-file probe.

Any punishment of the producers of "PD Notebook" may include the loss of a highly ambitious journalist. Han Hak-soo, a 36 year-old star producer at the network who directed the investigative report on Hwang.

He joined MBC-TV in 1997 after majoring in business at Seoul National University. Since then he has received several awards for exceptional and unconventional reporting, including the 'Investigative Reporting Award of the Year' by the Korean Association for Communication and Information Studies in 2003, and a further award this year for contributing to anticorruption.

He received acclaim for a documentary about the children of high-class families who avoided military service because their parents used their money or influence.