The role of media for social progress in China and the Philippines
Editor's note: ANC's Teddy Locsin Jr. delivered the speech at a recent Department of Foreign Affairs forum at Solaire.
Thank you. To my Chinese colleagues in media, good day, to my Filipino colleagues, hi. To the Department of Foreign Affairs, I am honored by your invitation. I have done my utmost to give you what most media in the name of social progress have consistently denied you: fair play in the matter of the sex for flight issue, which remains popular innuendo but not yet fact.
Nonetheless specific officers were named and shamed and forced to soil themselves more by having to wipe off the dirt flung at them by media which went on to pursue another angle of a story that may not be true after all. Or as we like to say in media, that isn’t true so far. What is something that isn’t true so far? Speculation.
It wasn’t always like that with media but times change.
I mean time passes and people change.
Journalism sinks to a new low in literacy, acumen, self-respect, the ability to tell fact from fiction and, most importantly, in a complete lacking lack of wanting to know the difference and respect it. The public loves this reckless disregard for truth or falsehood. It is so democratic to pay equal attention to fact and fiction.
Media and social progress is my theme. As journalists, none of us will put up with the self-important platitudes we lavish on ourselves whenever this subject comes up. So I will try to avoid it before this audience. Self-flattery is for public consumption.
Critical media has played a role in social progress but rarely and only in times of crisis.
It is the role of media to speak the truth to power and not to weakness, as when media flung the foulest least believable allegations in the face of what Alexander Bickel called "The Least Dangerous (because the weakest) Branch" of government. I refer to the faux impeachment of the chief justice and the feeding frenzy it excited in media without any regard to the democratic principles at stake.
When speaking of critical media and its role in social progress, I will mention in particular the crusading record of the Free Press because I started writing in it at the age of 17 when I went with Nick Joaquin to what was called Red China. We parted the bamboo curtain and revealed that, if things weren’t ideal, they were far from the hellish depictions in the American or rather the CIA supported media.
I saw the last emperor tending to a garden in the month he died and the flash of light in the night of China’s first hydrogen bomb from my bedroom balcony.
I met the author Alberto Moravia and his mistress on a train; and experienced the inflexible integrity of China under the puritanical rod of the party, when even the things I left behind in one city followed me to the next because Chinese never took anything that didn’t belong to them; not even charity.
I watched footage of the Chinese Red Army charging into mushroom cloud of the H-bomb to show how China would respond to a nuclear attack as a prelude to an American invasion; and experienced training in a Red Army camp for the PLA and African freedom fighters.
I witnessed the solidarity of the Chinese with oppressed peoples when they laid siege to the British embassy to protest Western intervention in the Six-Day War.
The Free Press publisher fought a 20-year fight for agrarian reform, even as Taiwan was raking in the benefits of it. The Free Press eventually won the agrarian battle, on paper I must stress, with the election of Macapagal and lost it when he lost to Marcos who substituted a seemingly wider but actually shallower agrarian reform, riddled with loopholes for the landed rich who, unlike the poor, know nothing about agriculture.
The Free Press never won its battle for a total log ban when we still had the remnants of a forest cover that American companies had done their darndest to send to Illinois. It lost the fight for a radical birth control when, at 30 million souls, the Free Press publisher thought that were already too many Filipinos.
The Free Press led the fight to stop martial law and assigned me to lionize Ninoy Aquino to be our Senate champion. He was not a popular figure then, even with the free media; he looked and sounded full of himself as he later confessed in his conversion in a prison cell. For this failed attempt, the publisher went to jail, along with other publishers that my father dragged into the fight.
Let me first dispose of a false issue: the private character of media ownership in so far as it affects the reliability of its news and views.
Before being shut down by martial law, newspapers were owned and directly managed by people of some but not enormous wealth and always of some social prominence, mostly from landed families.
The best of them actually worked in the publications they owned. Raul Locsin attempted a collective. The experiment had mixed results. He shut down his paper when his collectivity organized a union. The Free Press just fired the organizers. And when a union was organized in the Daily Globe, weirdly by an immensely bigger but talent-challenged newspaper, we shut it down. It was one thing to fight, as one always should, for the rights of labor and another thing to tolerate it in a newspaper so that whoever controlled the union could influence the paper.
But even print and broadcast media owned by big business—as least what passed for big at the time—did not espouse a pro-business line or go out of its way to defend or advance the owner’s business interests.
If it did, it would not be believed, so why bother. All media then made money, some more than others, but all were viable. There was no advertising department or advertising campaigns; business reps lined up in the driveway to buy ads, hoping there would be space in the next issue.
After martial law, there was, briefly, a proliferation of newspapers but only two survived to dominate the field; though not without some help from friends in government by way of extending credit and condoning debt.
The alternative to private ownership is public ownership; that works too, as in Singapore. It has worked most famously in Great Britain but the sheer tedium, if breathtaking comprehensiveness and accuracy of BBC programs, must surely limit its audience.
Most news is government news. It was and remains the job of media to report what government is doing to the people and why. The role of media is to report all that: what government has done or plans to do; and the ostensible reasons for it.
Anything more and deeper belongs to opinion and that is a rare commodity in its intelligent and honest form, which is to say without prompting from government.
Some media proudly go along with government, calling it enabling journalism but it is mental dishonesty and propaganda.
It is not that the only news is bad news and good news is not news. It is that government promises should not be news, not least because, unlike private promises, they are not enforceable under contract law. To report a tangible government achievement that you can touch—now that’s news. But there’s hardly any of that, so we go with the promises as though they are facts and applaud them. But that is not the role of media but of the prompted gallery at the SONA.
Why media keeps count of the claps in a SONA, as though that signified anything but the presence of prompters, can only be explained the simplicity of the editor. I am so glad that challenged people can get an important post in media.
Government does not need media support because it has all the power and money to do as it pleases. Sadly most of what pleases it is to just pocket the money or throw it away.
It is public interest—although that is rarely of any interest to the public—that needs the media to stop what government is doing and not to encourage the government to do what it will anyway. The role of media is not to extol good intentions but to predict the likely results and assess the real outcomes. The road to hell is paved with disingenuous avowals.
Except for the propagandists in a time of revolution, like La Solidaridad in the lead up to the Philippine revolt against Spain; and Mr & Ms in the lead up to the Philippine people power revolution; media contributes nothing in the way of social progress or political reform. That is not its job. And when it tries to do that job, it can be an awful disgrace as witness the distortions of media in the Corona impeachment.
Borrowing from GK Chesterton, no man of the world believes anything he sees in media and journalists don’t believe a quarter of the stuff they write.
Media never puts out the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth because there isn’t enough room or sustained public interest for it. Media’s imperative is to jazz up a subject and keep the public in suspense; not just about the outcome, but even about what it is really all about—if it is about anything all.
As a publisher I would get angry with my editors for repeatedly putting out both sides of a story in the same issue. I wanted just one side today and the other side tomorrow. A little defamation for 24 hours never killed anybody. The result was that my paper, now merged with the Standard, kindled and killed an issue in the same issue of the paper. Unbelievable.
This was supposed to be responsible journalism. Yeah sure but your first responsibility is to your paper’s survival and that turns entirely on keeping the public in suspense over whether or not anything happened, how it happened or whether it happened at all. The biggest surprise we can give the public is to drop a story because it was pure invention and leave it at that.
The Filipino mind is serial in character; hence the rapid domination of the airwaves by Taiwanese, Korean, now even local teleserye. When Marimar was aired in a dying government controlled TV station, it bounced back to commercial life; and wiped out public affairs shows in the biggest TV stations including my show Assignment. I was soon airing past midnight. I became very famous in New York parking buildings thanks to The Filipino Channel that they watched at noon East Coast time.
From the declaration of martial law to the end of the same, and on through our current democracy, media evolved from being a parrot of government news and views under the compulsion of fear and flattery, to being a parrot of government news and views under the compulsion of advertising or the willing desire to flatter government.
Intelligence is not interesting or popular. It can be both if you have the talent for it, which is rare.
Attack only the highest in office and not their critics or you will be doing their work for them. Make your name taking on the strong and not the weak.
We write hand-to-mouth with the proceeds of news parceled out by the people who stand to profit from their selective dissemination. The Napoles pork barrel scam is what no journalism should be: an evolving story. That means it feeds on the sparse diet of what is parceled out by the source: in this case government. Trying to follow this story, you would think that the president’s few enemies in Congress invented the pork barrel for themselves, while his numerous new friends had kept themselves clean when they licked his predecessor’s tiny shoes.
The Corona impeachment removed the chief justice of the Supreme Court on the basis of articles pertaining to unimpeachable acts. And at that there was no evidence. The original articles of impeachment were junked by the House except for one and a half; the residue was supported by a diaphragm, drawn by the Ombudsman.
Not reporting everything in your SALN that your enemies will use against you is no more impeachable than killing another public official. The impeachment of US Vice President Aaron Burr for killing Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was thrown out because homicide is not impeachable: it poses no threat to the state.
On the other hand, procuring, and I use that word advisedly, yes procuring the impeachment and trial of a chief justice for non-impeachable acts and omissions undermines the separation of powers and upsets the fragile balance between a cash-rich Executive, a cash-starved Congress and an impotent Court which has no power and less authority to directly enforce its judgments but must wait on the pleasure of the president. Again, why it is called the least dangerous branch.
Out of a natural timorousness, the Philippine media reported circumspectly on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. I think it is late in the day, if not childish, to call it the West Philippine Sea. The British gave that name; we shouldn’t change history anymore than we should change the historic names of our streets.
The media was full of sober commentary by native experts favoring the Chinese side or at least giving it the benefit of the doubt.
President Aquino was pretty much out on a limb and twisting in the wind when he said that he would no more abandon the Recto Reef to China than he would Recto Avenue.
But things change: Recto was once Azcarraga. For the most part media bewailed the corrosive effect of a strong government stand on the local business of exporting perishables to Shanghai, as though the fate of the nation hung on a banana stem. It was all about bananas by the way.
It was different with the killing of a Taiwan fisherman whose boat was shot up with automatic fire from a Coast Guard gunboat.
The killing was premeditated because the gunboat gave chase, all the while firing away at the cabin where the crew was huddled. What was the Coast Guard doing, providing ventilation? Intent to kill is proved beyond all reasonable doubt by the number of bullets expended in the incident by one side only.
The media went all out justifying the killing as an act of self-defense, because the small fishing boat could have turned around—mind you, “could have” even if it “did not”— and rammed our gunboat, which could have easily veered away if anyone on board knew how to steer. In any event, the fishing boat tried to get away but wasn’t fast enough.
The media called the killing an act of sovereign assertion, even if illegally entering another country to make a living there does not violate its sovereignty. The millions of Filipino TNTs in the US are continuing violations of American territory but not of American sovereignty. Indeed, by violating US immigration law, illegal aliens assert rather than deny American sovereignty or they wouldn’t be in hiding.
I was alone, with the MECO director, in insisting we immediately apologize for the incident. It was unjustifiable because even if there was poaching, killing has never been a legitimate response to kill.
The glaring disproportion between a gunboat and a fishing vessel—the one chock full o’ men with automatic rifles, the other packed with poor fishermen who could only throw fish at their pursuers—was reason enough to immediately apologize to Taiwan.
The killing had nothing to do with the "One-China Policy" and everything to do with civilization. Even if we do not recognize as a state the place from which a people come, we cannot kill them at will. That violates the law of nations and is an international crime against humanity, especially since we have done it at least four times already.
Once when we blew up a Taiwanese fishing vessel killing all hands.
Again when two cops from Batanes gave chase in a pump boat, opened fire, killed the captain, crippling his only crew, a younger brother who is now an itinerant vendor in Taipei, and stealing the fish. In the joint investigation, the cops did not appear and the Philippines made no attempt to find them.
This was followed by the most recent carnage, which so incensed the people of Taiwan that there were ugly incidents involving our workers there. Fortunately the widow of our victim appealed to her people for sobriety and compassion for our fellowmen in Taiwan who would die of hunger if they were forced return here to find no work.
A top DFA official told me there was an incident involving the Philippine Navy, which now Senator Trillanes may have witnessed to his horror as a young lieutenant. That makes four.
Three alone qualifies it as systematic terror or systematic tolerance of piracy by the forces of a state; in which regard that state is a failed one.
Taiwan did not protest the earlier incidents with anything like the fervor of latest one because of an outcry in the Taiwan media.
The reason is that the victims have always been poor fishermen; an occupation held in low regard in Chinese society. There, as here, the poor are scantly regarded. We would never shoot at any of the ironclad factory ships that catch, clean and can fish on site. They are owned by Taiwanese billionaires.
To the credit of Justice Secretary de Lima, her office found unjustifiable homicide.
And the government, after months of obdurate bad manners, issued a formal apology.
The widow of course remains bereft not just of her husband but any source of livelihood because the boat is unusable.
In all of this, most media took the jingoist line that anyway Taiwanese are stateless people and so have no right to live. Oddly Taiwan has the military wherewithal, largely US supplied, to erase our country from the face of the planet in, I would reckon, 30 minutes.
And lastly, Filipino citizens showing more courage and conviction than their Christian counterparts, crossed over to take symbolic possession of land they have claimed by royal title; which a republic like ours must uphold even as merely proprietary.
Ten thousand Malaysian troops reportedly encircled, though in just the first week of landing the Filipinos appear to have established a radius of control of 150 kilometers. That’s pretty good for 200 men.
Instead of pleading for the safety of our foolhardy compatriots, the Philippine government and the Philippine media portrayed the 200 as rogues to be dealt with by the armed forces of foreign state in any way it wants, as though our men were stateless persons, thereby throwing away our Sabah claim.
We may assure our Chinese friends that, though we are a democracy, our media goes along with government but only when it suits the media and not, as in the past, under the compulsion of dictatorship.
I think the Chinese government might consider allowing the private ownership of big media because it will make no difference whatsoever. On the contrary, while government media may need to lightly rap government’s wrist on this or that minor issue for the sake of its credibility, private media will never criticize where it can praise, and not so much out of fear as from the undying impulse of flattery.
Thank you and good day.Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.