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The Philippine president and the media

Publication Date : 03-08-2012

 

We welcome President Benigno Aquino’s serial criticism of specific media practices in the Philippines, especially when it bases itself on principles that bind the work of journalists everywhere. It comes, so to speak, with the territory. But we must decline to accept his evolving theory of news; despite his good intentions, his concept is based on an unfortunate misunderstanding of the role of journalism in a democracy.

A week ago today, the president used the occasion of the 25th anniversary rites of BusinessWorld and the “TV Patrol” news programme to resume his continuing critique of media conduct. He was careful to recognise the important work of both the newspaper and the newscast, and to praise the founding values that allowed BusinessWorld to succeed and “TV Patrol” to become an integral part of Philippine society.

But as he has done in the past, he also lamented the “negativity” that he said characterised much of Philippine journalism. Most controversially, he criticised the lead anchor of “TV Patrol”, former Vice President Noli de Castro, as an example of this negative attitude. In fact, the president’s three specific accusations against De Castro are better understood as a detailing of what he perceives are the news anchor’s failings as a journalist: speculation without basis, commentary without a corresponding sense of responsibility, bias without acknowledgment.

De Castro, and the ABS-CBN network where “TV Patrol” serves as news flagship, can respond to this criticism in their own way, at their own pace. When criticism of media conduct is as specific as this, alleging violations of the profession’s own standards, no media organisation can afford to brush it aside, or dismiss it outright as interference with its editorial independence. Isn’t it the responsibility of any member of a self-regulating profession to process such complaints through its internal procedures? We think that holds true, even if the criticism comes from the highest official of the land.

But President Aquino went further. He asked members of the media to counter the negativity with positive stories. At the “TV Patrol” anniversary, he asked what he must have thought was a damning question—rhetorical, but damning just the same: “Kailan pa po ba naging masama ang pagpapahayag ng mabuting balita (Since when did publishing the good news become a bad thing)?”

The answer, ironically, can be supplied from the president’s own experience, the same experience he referenced at the start of his third State of the Nation Address: since martial law. During the so-called New Society, the people were fed a steady diet of feel-good stories, whose combined light, like all those painted walls put up to hide squalid squatter shanties, served to whitewash the corruption and decadence of the Marcos regime.

Could “positive news” simply be yet another victim of history, like the very concept of a parliamentary system of government? Every time someone suggests a return to the parliamentary system, someone else will bring up the disastrous Marcos experiment. Could a focus on positive news be a reincarnation of the discredited developmental journalism model so favoured by the Marcoses?

At the BusinessWorld anniversary, the president offered an up-to-date rationale: “The media, the government, and the people must work together to create an environment of positive, progressive discourse between them. We must veer away from negativity and sensationalism.”

Yes, but. Who defines “positive” and “progressive”? This is not an idle, philosophical puzzle. In newsrooms across the country, it is a practical, day-to-day question. Is the continuing increase in overseas worker remittances good news? Yes, but what about the social costs of divided families, increased materialism, frustrated expectations? Shouldn’t we write about all that? Is the uninterrupted growth in the gross national product good news? Yes, but what about the widening gap between the rich and the poor? Shouldn’t we investigate that?

The point is: Criticise us when we fall short of journalism’s own standards. But leave us to exercise our own news judgement. It’s imperfect, it’s vulnerable to pressure—but government thinking is no substitute for it. That is why the media enjoy a privileged position in our constitutional tradition; they serve as a countervailing weight in an intricate system of checks and balances. And that, truly, is good news.

 

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