[Mythbusters] The Ghosn Show: Less Than A Full Court Presser

 

(First of 2 Parts)

 

On January 8, the former Nissan CEO and fugitive from alleged “medieval justice” in Japan held a much-anticipated press conference in Beirut, Lebanon, to which he had fled at great expense with the aid of a shady U.S. operator with a criminal record.

 

While Ghosn had promised to “name names” and to provide evidence that he was innocent as a newborn baby, he did nothing of the kind. And for the most part, English language news media found nothing new, and journalists resorted to recycling claims and allegations that had been in the news off and on for months.

 

These claims about alleged “hostage justice” in Japan will be taken up in a subsequent article. Here, I will focus on how foreign press coverage changed in the wake of Ghosn’s flight from Japan and Beirut press conference (hereafter presser).

 

No New Names at His Presser

 

Not only did Ghosn not give any new names in the alleged conspiracy against him, he explicitly stated that he did not think top government officials, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, were involved. 

 

Nevertheless, despite Ghosn’s own statement on Abe, the Washington Post — which has published numerous anti-Japanese screeds — ran a puerile and tendentious piece by William Pesek, claiming that Ghosn was “thumbing his nose at Abe’s government.” Similar claims, albeit with less childish idioms, abound.

 

Other, more intelligent commentary suggested that the government of Lebanon had pressured Ghosn to not allege high-level Japanese government involvement in order to forestall further harm to Japan-Lebanon relations.

 

The Financial Times is an example of a respected newspaper that expected major revelations from Ghosn. It drew up a list of five issues it expected Ghosn to deal with:

  1. On his no-contest plea to charges by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, why did he choose to defer salary, and why hide it?
  2. On his allegations of a double standard in the Japanese justice system, who does he believe should have been arrested along with him?
  3. On the Renault-Nissan merger, why was he unable to convince the company he had run for nearly 20 years that a merger was in its interests?
  4. On his allegation of a coordinated plot, will he provide evidence of a Japanese government official agreeing to help Nissan to bring him down? 
  5. Is there any justification for his lavish spending of Nissan-Renault money on matters unrelated to business?

 

Ghosn was fined $1 million USD and banned from corporate positions in the U.S. for 10 years when he pleaded no-contest to charges of fraud brought against him by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). His alleged accomplice, Greg Kelly, was fined $100,000 USD and banned for five years. 

 

Yet, Ghosn did not deal with the issue, and most of the media let it pass. Many articles continue to claim Japanese charges against him are groundless and part of a conspiracy between Nissan and the Japanese government. The U.S. SEC action is almost certainly being ignored because it seriously undermines this conspiracy narrative.

 

Davos Man with a Rockstar Lifestyle

 

The only one of the five issues raised by the Financial Times that Ghosn addressed directly was that €635,000 EUR (approximately $705,000 USD) event that Ghosn and his wife Carole hosted at the Versailles Palace in 2014. It was ostensibly billed as a celebration of the 15th anniversary of the Renault-Nissan alliance, although only two executives from Renault and none from Nissan attended. 

 

Ghosn’s explanation, such as it was, can only be described as evasive. Even Carole Ghosn, staunch defender of her rich white man, has been quoted as saying that this ostentatious event was “unfortunate — I wish he never did it.”

 

The New York Post carried a detailed article on the extravaganza and suggested that it was really the beginning of Ghosn’s downfall. Peter Tasker noted in JAPAN Forward that, by 2017, Ghosn had become the quintessential Davos Man, flying here, there, and everywhere in a private jet funded by Nissan-Renault. 

 

Less noted is a Carnival watching party in Rio that Ghosn charged to a Nissan-Renault subsidiary in the Netherlands that does no business in Brazil.  The cost was $257,872 USD.

 

Powerpoint Skills Need Polish

 

Some reports have suggested Ghosn might be in demand as a university lecturer, presumably in business ethics. If so, he needs to polish his delivery.  Students paying serious money to attend prestigious business schools expect a lot for their money.

 

Ultimately, his presser was described as “rambling” by the Financial TimesBen Dooley in the New York Times went further and called it a “rambling tirade.” In the Japan Times, Satoshi Sugiyama described the presser as “a master class in chaos.” 

 

Ghosn showed slides of documents that he claims prove his innocence, but the projected text was too small for those at the presser to read. He has repeatedly claimed that he has documents that show his innocence, but has in fact released nothing to outside scrutiny. 

 

If the expenses associated with his bail jumping ($13.8 million USD) and flight (estimates vary) have left him too skint to afford photocopies, he could at least post them online.

 

Gaffe — or Freudian Slip?

 

The foreign press subsequently focused on a statement by Justice Minister Masako Mori, saying that Ghosn needed to “prove his innocence.” This was cited as evidence that Japan did not adhere to the principle of presumed innocent until proven guilty. 

 

A member of Ghosn’s French legal team, Francois Zimeray, lectured the Japanese justice minister to the effect that it was up to the prosecution to prove guilt, not for the accused to prove his innocence.

 

I would suggest a different interpretation. 

 

Before he jumped bail, Ghosn had repeatedly said he would prove his innocence at his trial. Since fleeing, he has continued to claim that he has documentary evidence of his innocence. Anyone who has read his many statements along these lines, as I have, would naturally start thinking in terms of the American idiom, “put up or shut up.”

 

Corrupt Justice is More Congenial than Medieval Justice

 

On various occasions, Ghosn has said that he had not fled justice, only Japanese injustice: “I will fully cooperate with the Lebanese judiciary, and I’m much more comfortable with it than with the Japanese judiciary.”  

 

A small number of commentators quickly pointed out that the justice system in Lebanon is notoriously corrupt, and the country as a whole is perceived as permeated by corruption.

 

The Transparency International Corruption Perception Index for 2018 ranked Japan 18th, Lebanon 138th out of 180 countries.

 

When some reports indicated that Ghosn had suggested he might apply his managerial skills to sorting out the economic and political chaos that plagues Lebanon, some wags on Twitter suggested that Ghosn was not corrupt enough to succeed in Lebanese politics.

 

In its 2019 report on Lebanon, Human Rights Watch stated, “Lebanese authorities continue to prosecute individuals for peaceful speech, police and soldiers have beaten protesters, and detainees continue to report torture by security forces.”  

 

Ghosn may escape “medieval justice” in Lebanon, but if he does, that will be because of his wealth and political connections, not because the legal system is better than that of Japan.

 

Spin Doctors Evaluate His Performance

 

In one of the more interesting articles to come out of his presser, Bloomberg invited public relations specialists (aka spin doctors) to evaluate Ghosn’s press conference. Most did not think he did well.  

 

Larry Kramer saw the press conference as, “Really, just him airing his grievances.” He went on to suggest: “If he’s serious about it (alleged judicial abuse in Japan) ─ and it’s not just an excuse ─ he’s got to make good on it. Partner with an organization, put up money, come to the aid of other prisoners.”

 

Trudi Harrison Dubon suggested that Ghosn needed a “spot of humility.” She described as “cringe-worthy” Ghosn’s assertion that his arrest was comparable to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

 

Rory Godson advised: “Stop pre-litigating or re-litigating the facts of your case. People find it hard to be sympathetic to fabulously wealthy bosses complaining that other powerful people are conspiring against them.” Godson then went on to describe Ghosn’s Pearl Harbor analogy, in which he compared his surprise arrest to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, as “crass and offensive to Japanese and Americans.”

 

The only semi-positive evaluation of Ghosn’s performance came from Anne Meaux, who just happens to be the head of a Paris-based PR firm employed by Ghosn.

 

(To be continued)

 

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Author: Dr. Earl H. Kinmonth

 

Earl Kinmonth

Author:

Earl H. Kinmonth is professor emeritus at Taisho University. Before moving to Japan in 1997, he was reader in Japanese Studies at the University of Sheffield (1989-1997) and professor of history at the University of California-Davis (1977-1989). His research is in the history and sociology of Japanese education from the Meiji period to the present, with an emphasis on 1930s-1940s Japan. He is a Japanese citizen and writes commentary in English and Japanese, and does Japanese English translation. He is currently writing a book on foreign media coverage of Japan under the working title Japan in the Foreign Imagination.

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