Lawmakers say MBC covered up mad cow errors

They disclose internal minutes of worried officials facing new probe

July 11,2008
The nation’s second-largest broadcaster made an organized attempt to conceal the truth in the volatile controversy over its current affairs episode about U.S. beef and mad cow disease, two Grand National lawmakers charged yesterday.

To back up the allegation they disclosed internal minutes from Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation meetings.

Representatives Kim Yong-tae and Jin Seong-ho held a press conference to condemn the broadcasting company for “inviting outside forces to incapacitate government functions and authorities in a thoroughly premeditated manner.”

The lawmakers said their arguments are based on the minutes dated June 27, 29, 30 and July 1. Copies of the minutes were distributed to journalists.

Prosecutors announced the launch of an investigation into “PD Diary” on June 26.

“MBC is trying to buy as much time as possible to hush up the incident,” the lawmakers said. “These records allow us to see that MBC was already aware of the distortion and exaggeration in the episode of PD Diary.”

Hong Su-seon, public affairs manager for MBC, said yesterday that the leaked minutes are simply records of meetings where officials freely spoke about their individual opinions and they should not be regarded as the company’s official position.

“On Tuesday, we will run an episode of PD Diary about our position on this issue,” Hong said. “The key point is whether we intended to distort information or not, and the show will cover that in detail, as well as the prosecution’s investigation on this matter.”

According to copies of the minutes, department heads and lawyers of MBC discussed their next course of action to counter growing attacks on the company over PD Diary’s report.

“When prosecutors request information for their investigation, turn them down once or twice and try to give them an excuse to buy as much time as possible,” a June 27 minute says.

“Hasty admission of a mistake or an apology can negatively influence a trial, the prosecution’s investigation or the evaluation of the Korea Communications Standards Commission,” the document reads.

It goes on to declare: “It’s necessary to withhold any announcement and wait and see how the situation develops.”

According to a June 30 record, members at an emergency meeting agreed that the broadcaster had no easy way of solving its problems.

“It is better for the occupational associations such as the Korean Producers and Directors Association or the National Union of Media Workers to take the lead,” the record says.

The participants at the meeting also discussed the need for them to prepare for prosecutors’ summons and questioning of PD Diary staff.

“The company must be prepared for the seizure of the assistant writer’s laptop computer,” the minutes said.

After Seoul and Washington reached a deal on April 17 to resume U.S. beef imports to Korea, MBC’s PD Diary aired an episode titled “Urgent Report! Is U.S. beef safe from mad cow disease?” on April 29.

The TV program helped stoke public fears and soon teenagers began candlelight vigils protesting imports of U.S. beef. Civic groups soon joined them, transforming the rallies into a movement to oust President Lee Myung-bak. The protests nearly paralyzed the nation for two months.

The administration’s approval rating plummeted despite its efforts to regain public confidence through resignations by the Blue House secretariat and cabinet and the announcement of additional safeguards on U.S. beef.

The situation took an interesting turn last month when the nation’s conservatives criticized the broadcaster for triggering daily street protests with an exaggerated and inaccurate portrayal of mad cow risks.

Following the accusation, the Agriculture Ministry asked prosecutors to investigate the producers of PD Diary, claiming that the program’s distorted report had defamed the Lee administration and the beef deal negotiators. Prosecutors stepped in, but the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office said MBC failed to meet the July 4 deadline to submit raw materials that it used to produce the show.

At the center of the controversy is the name of a rare, incurable and fatal brain disease that had caused the death of an American woman. Some viewers, Internet users, Grand National Party members and some media have pointed out that PD Diary misstated the name of the disease that the woman died of, giving the impression that the death was linked to consumption of beef from a cow infected with mad cow disease.

The April 29 episode included an interview with the mother of Aretha Vinson. The report’s subtitles showed her mother saying, “According to MRI results, I was told there was a possibility that Aretha had vCJD [human mad cow disease].”

Unlike the subtitles, the term the mother had actually used was CJD or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a disease that occurs spontaneously in about one in a million people each year.

While vCJD, or variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, is commonly known as the human form of mad cow disease, CJD and vCJD are two distinctly different diseases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Classic CJD is not related to ‘mad cow’ disease. Classic CJD also is distinct from ‘variant CJD,’ another prion disease that is related to BSE [bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease],” the CDC said on its Internet site.

“It is believed that persons who have developed vCJD became infected through their consumption of cattle products contaminated with the agent of BSE,” or in some cases, “through receipt of blood from an asymptomatic, infected donor,” the CDC also said. CJD is not caused by or related to eating beef.

PD Diary spent 20 minutes of its program on June 24 defending its show. The program’s production team said, “We thought Vinson’s mother, who had no professional medical knowledge, was confused about the two terms,” explaining why it went ahead and used vCJD in the subtitles. The producers also blamed the show’s translation staff for other mistakes by saying, “We regret that we left room for misunderstanding because we didn’t provide word-by-word translation.”

The defense angered at least one of the show’s translators. Jeong Ji-min said on July 2 that PD Diary made an intentional mistake in subtitles.

“Vinson’s mother was clearly aware of the difference between CJD and human mad cow disease,” Jeong claimed. “She was not confused between the two terms in the interview. She meant CJD.”

As a part of its investigation, prosecutors are now seeking Vinson’s medical records. “The U.S. government is currently reviewing whether the provision of such records is in violation of Vinson and her family’s privacy. We will hear from them soon.”

On June 12, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center had ruled out the possibility of vCJD as the cause of death of Vinson who died earlier this year.

Prosecutors said they have no choice but to investigate the case on their own if MBC refuses to submit raw materials that formed the basis of its report. A source said PD Diary can be charged with disclosing false information and defaming the Agriculture Ministry.

The Korea Communications Standards Commission yesterday ordered MBC to appear at a hearing next Wednesday. The commission’s hearing is to decide whether or not MBC violated fairness and objectivity in reporting.

By Ser Myo-ja Staff Reporter [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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