What They Said is a weekly series on the quotes behind the headlines.
Rather than dying down, the row over Yoon Suk Yeol’s hot mic incident received more national attention this past week, after the South Korean president returned from his visit abroad.
Following Yoon’s remark about “false reports” putting people at risk, the Office of the President sent an official letter to MBC President Park Sung Je, asking him to answer questions on the company’s reporting procedures with respect to the hot mic incident. In return, MBC released a statement:
“The Presidential Secretariat sent an official letter to the MBC president’s office last night, asking for an explanation regarding the reporting of the president’s so-called ‘expletive’ remarks.
The Presidential Secretariat said, ‘The alliance between the Republic of Korea and the United States has been damaged and Korea’s national interest has been severely harmed by reports made without any effort to confirm the facts.’ They demanded detailed answers to six questions, including what the basis was for specifying the words whose pronunciation was difficult to ascertain and what procedures were taken to confirm the purpose and the facts of the remarks.
MBC has already stated several times that the news report was based on common sense and a fair coverage process. It is very regrettable and concerning that, despite the fact that there is an institutional mechanism for objecting to news reports, the Office of the President, the highest authority in this country, has sent an official letter to the president of a public broadcasting company to clarify its reporting process, as it could be seen as pressure that threatens the freedom of the press.
It also raises suspicions that the Office of the President is attempting to handle the controversy by making MBC a scapegoat, given that MBC is the only company that has received such a letter, even though most of the Korean media has made the same reports.
Prior to the Presidential Secretariat’s official letter, National Assembly member Park Seong-jung for the People Power Party also sent an official letter to MBC, demanding that the MBC president, vice president, or the director of the News Division come to the National Assembly and explain the so-called ‘false broadcasting’ to the members of the People Power Party’s Science, ICT, Broadcasting, and Communications Committee and the chair of the Special Committee for the Promotion of ICT and Media.
The attempt to arbitrarily summon media executives is also a serious restriction on the freedom of the press.
MBC hopes that this recent attack on the company, led by certain political circles, is not an attempt to curb the media’s functions of public surveillance and criticism.
MBC once again reiterates its position that it will not neglect its efforts to pursue the truth.”
— MBC, September 27, 2022
The National Union of Media Workers held a press conference in which it criticized the government for shifting the blame over the controversy to the media instead of owning up to its mistakes.
On the same day, Lee Jae-myeong, the deputy spokesperson for the Office of the President, appeared on the MBC radio show “Kim Jong-bae’s Focus (siseon jipjung)” and condemned MBC for jeopardizing the country’s alliance with the United States:
“[What the president said] is clearly not ‘Biden’. Then, of course, people will be curious as to what he said, and in what context it was said. I will say this, that we have confirmed through various outside experts what the closest word may be. The important thing is that we have taken various steps to confirm that the word was not ‘Biden’. We have gone through a kind of process to ensure that. If the press had also gone through a kind of process to confirm what that word was, there wouldn’t have been a problem. But as you know, there was no such process, and they did not request confirmation from us. And what was reported as the president’s remarks became established fact, was captioned, and repeatedly reproduced. This is the problem.”
— Lee Jae-myeong, deputy spokesperson for the Office of the President, September 27, 2022
The Office of the President maintained its position that the media has propagated fake news. Kim Dae-ki, the presidential chief of staff, held a press conference on September 29 and remarked that MBC’s fake news was sowing discord. Regarding the “expletive” incident, he said that the president was having a hard time remembering exactly what he said and he seemed to be confused.
Yoon also refused to comment on a reporter’s question about his thoughts on the prolonged controversy.
Meanwhile, the ruling party still seems divided in its stance.
On September 29, the People Power Party’s Task Force for Investigating the Truth about MBC’s Biased and Manipulated Broadcasting filed a lawsuit against MBC CEO Park Sung Je, the Newsroom chief and the Digital News Bureau chief, as well as the reporter who first reported Yoon’s remarks caught on hot mic. Such an action is unprecedented, considering that most of the Korean media reported the same news as MBC, with the same captions.
Park Dae-chul, a National Assembly member for the People Power Party and the head of the task force, explained:
“Despite the fact that manipulated broadcasts caused national harm and spread the controversy, no attempts were made [by MBC] to resolve the problem or reflect on their actions, and instead [MBC] continued to misrepresent the truth.”
— Park Dae-chul, National Assembly member for the People Power Party and the head of the Task Force for Investigating the Truth about MBC’s Biased and Manipulated Broadcasting, September 29, 2022
However, other National Assembly members for the People Power Party, such as Ha Tae-keung and Kim Haeng, commented on how the president’s poor handling of the incident is making the situation worse. Regarding the PPP’s lawsuit against MBC, Kim Keun-sik, former head of Vision and Strategy for the People Power Party, remarked on Facebook:
“It is an excessive response that has no political benefit for the ruling party, to define a specific broadcasting company’s reporting as manipulation, bias, and incitement, and to make a protest visit, demand the resignation of its president, and even file a criminal lawsuit.
The people are already aware of the concerns over MBC’s bias and partiality. Public trust in MBC news has been almost non-existent for a long time now. It is up to the wise public to assess the media. The ruling party’s excessively hardline response is actually drawing attention to MBC, to which viewers had been indifferent.
The freedom of the press must be guaranteed, and the wise public will judge and expel any media companies that have fallen into political bias while advocating freedom. The MBC union is already demanding an investigation into the truth.
For MBC, the answer is ‘benign neglect’, not ‘excessive attack’. Indifference is the most effective and harshest response.”
— Kim Keun-sik, September 29, 2022
Yoon Suk Yeol’s approval rating has fallen once again, to 24%, the lowest level since he took office in May 2022.