His kind of people

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THE PHILIPPINE Daily Inquirer described President Benigno S. Aquino III as “affable” during his speech at the 9th MediaNation “Summit” last Friday, November 23, in contrast to his “combative” stance in at least three events this year when he rebuked the media for their alleged inaccuracy, negativity, and focus on his love life.

And why shouldn’t Mr. Aquino have been friendlier than usual? He has after all demonstrated time and again that he can’t stand ordinary journalists, whom he has even insulted during his press conferences. He was apparently at ease last Friday because he was addressing, not so much the smattering of media practitioners present, but the media owners and publishers, as well as the members of the “summit” sponsoring organization, Pagbabago@Pilipinas, who include, among others, non-communication academics; a clutch of business executives; an actor; a politician; and a trickle-down economist–in other words, a conservative bunch who share a common distrust of the press and the media who can afford to pay the $50,000 lecture fee of former Poland President Lech Walesa, and for that reason Mr. Aquino’s kind of people.

The choice of the three-day “summit” topic, “Corruption in Media,” and the date on which it started, were particularly expressive of where these people are coming from. Corruption in media has often been cited as a leading cause of—in so many words, as the justification for–the killing of journalists. That  apparently suited Mr. Aquino fine: he proceeded to praise the organizers for the theme they chose to focus on, on the very date when, three years ago, the worst attack on the press and media anywhere occurred in the Philippines. Apparently, it didn’t occur to any of the media big shots present that one of the leading causes of corruption in the media are the low salaries and  non-existent benefits their organizations offer many practitioners, some of whom have been casual employees for decades.

Mr. Aquino did mention the killing of journalists in passing, but devoted not a single word to reminding his hosts and the nation that he was speaking at the so-called “media summit” on the third anniversary of the Ampatuan Massacre, during which 32 journalists and media workers were killed, allegedly by the private and privatized army of a local warlord.

Of course Mr. Aquino could not have said anything about the Ampatuan Massacre, the date of which international press freedom watch groups have  designated the International Day to End Impunity. The reason’s simple enough: he hasn’t done anything about it, whether by encouraging the revision of the rules of court that have been the main cause of the molasses-like progress of the trial of those accused of masterminding and carrying out the Massacre, or by dismantling the warlord armies that in over a hundred places in the Philippines have been involved not only in the killing of journalists but in extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations as well.

If Mr. Aquino was in his element when referring to media corruption, he was even more voluble when he talked about conflict of interest in the media. Conflicts of interest are indeed among the most common problems in the journalism profession. But the primary reason for their persistence isn’t so much practitioner inability to define the limits of such practices as endorsing products like detergent and toothpaste (a problem more common among entertainment rather than news media practitioners), as the ownership system that has been in place in this country since Commonwealth days.

Conflicts of interest occur when there is a clash between the public’s right to accurate, impartial, and complete information and the individual practitioner’s and/or the media organization’s and owner’s self-interest. Because the corporate media are owned and controlled by various business and political interest groups, the consequence for the news media is a fundamental conflict of interest between the public need for reliable information, and media owners’ using the  media to protect and/or enhance their political and business concerns.

Few or none of the media owners and publishers who were listening to Mr. Aquino were likely to admit that the contradiction between private ownership of the media and their public service function is the mother of conflict of interest in the press and media. As for Mr. Aquino, it’s either he and his Palace media cohort have not thought about the problem enough, or they’re not prepared to make the owners of the media–who’re his natural allies, anyway–as uncomfortable as he has made ordinary journalists.

But as far as preventing conflicts of interest at a less basic level is concerned, Mr. Aquino actually had a chance to demonstrate his commitment to better media practice during and after the 2010 campaign. The columnists and other media people who were part of his campaign then continued to write and report for their respective media organizations without so much as a hint to the public about their political entanglements, which created a conflict of interest with the public right to fair comment and to accurate and impartial reporting.

Some of these media people whose support Mr. Aquino accepted with no regard for the ensuing conflict of interest their involvement in his campaign created have since been appointed to government posts, while others are continuing to support him, his policies and whatever it is he says or does, with the public being none the wiser about their links to Mr. Aquino–who in 2010 could have very easily told them to take a leave of absence or to desist from commenting on the Presidential campaign, but didn’t.

Someone should inform Mr. Aquino that the standards of media behavior, including those meant to prevent such conflicts of interest as the above instances, have been in place for decades, contrary to his claim that the press and media have no fixed standards. Those standards consist of well-established ethical principles, as well as professional standards practitioners are expected to observe. As every freshman communication student knows, there are literally thousands of resources, whether in print or online, on what these standards are.

To be fair to Mr. Aquino, however, he did hint that the owners of the media should be able to pay journalists the salaries they deserve given the responsibilities they have to discharge. Overall, however, there was little in his speech that was of relevance to the real issues that confront the press and media as well as the public they serve, among them the absence of a Freedom of Information bill, the continuing use of criminal libel to silence critical journalists, and the perils to free expression posed by the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 and the continuing murder of journalists. All these—for the persistence of which Mr. Aquino should be held responsible—while he and his friends were talking about corruption in the media on, of all days, the International Day to End Impunity.

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