Judging Willie

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FORMER University of the Philippines law dean Raul Pangalangan says that the public call for an advertisers’ boycott of the TV5 program Willing Willie—and presumably some of the program’s sponsors’ withdrawing their ads–is “fraught with danger” for free expression. I submit that it is indeed fraught with danger, though not for free expression, but for its abuse.

Dean Pangalangan recalls that an advertisers’ boycott has been used before, for example in 1999, to intimidate the press. Reacting to press criticism, then President Joseph Estrada convinced his friends in the movie- making and -importing business not to advertise in, and to withdraw their ads from, the Philippine Daily Inquirer. More recently, when inducting the new officers of the AdBoard, Benigno Aquino III called on advertisers not to support media organizations (in both print and broadcast) guilty of “sensationalism” and false reporting.

Dean Pangalangan describes the Aquino call as “benign” compared to Estrada’s call. And yet both did have the power of the Presidency behind them, and Aquino’s call was noteworthy for its assumption that advertisers can on their own determine whether a media organization is behaving “irresponsibly” or “sensationalizing” its reports.

Since Mr. Aquino had previously criticized the media for their supposed emphasis on reporting the bad news and focusing on his love life, it’s probably safe to assume that what Mr. Aquino meant by “sensationalism” is the media’s reporting who he’s dating, perhaps their reports on the decline of his trust ratings, or on the latest SWS survey which found that more Filipinos are hungry today than last year. Is it therefore on those bases—and whatever else they can think of—that advertisers can decide which media organizations to avoid putting ads in? That makes the Aquino call nearly as dangerous to free expression today as Estrada’s was in 1999.

In any case, Dean Pangalangan was saying that the call for an advertising boycott of Willie Revillame’s Willing Willie is in the same category of danger to free expression as the Estrada and Aquino calls. This view has led to some confusion, with a number of those applauding the decision by several of Revillame’s sponsors to withdraw their support wondering if they’re being a party to the suppression of free expression.

Like every other citizen, Revillame’s right to free expression is protected by Article III Section 4 of the Philippine Constitution which proscribes the passage of any law abridging press freedom, free expression and freedom of assembly. His program is presumably his favored venue for expressing his views, whatever they may be.

The quality of his opinions is not at issue. It may indeed be argued that those who hold the most repulsive, the meanest, most idiotic and most self-serving opinions are especially in need of Constitutional protection, on the assumption that what’s currently regarded as absurd could in the future turn out to be reasonable.
I am absolutely certain that that will not happen in Revillame’s case. But Dean Pangalangan also assumes that Revillame is part of the press, a public institution that uses the media, whether old or new, to disseminate information and provide analyses and explanations on events of public interest to a mass audience. Revillame is certainly nothing of kind. What he is is an entertainer, no matter how often he proclaims that his is a “public service program,” which would make it part of the press.

The public service program is an interactive broadcast genre in which radio listeners or TV viewers in need of information on matters of public or personal interest communicate with the program host by phone, text or personal appearance. The host then provides on the air the information needed. The Philippine variant includes the host’s providing direct assistance, such as contacting government officials who can address the listener or viewer’s complaint.

Revillame provides neither service. He doesn’t provide information on when and where to file a claim for workman’s compensation, for example. Neither does he bring together complainants and the agencies that can address their grievances. His claim to public service is limited to throwing money at the participants in his program in exchange for their doing something to entertain the TV and studio audience. In the Philippines, entertaining that audience—desensitized and dumbed down by years of exposure to bad TV programming– too often consists of participants’ demeaning themselves as well as being insulted and humiliated in various ways.

Not by any stretch of the imagination is Revillame part of the press. He belongs instead to the nether world of TV entertainment and noon-time shows, where professional standards and ethics are unheard of and/or habitually ignored, despite the KBP Broadcast Code.

While press freedom is therefore not at issue, we can grant that free expression—specifically Revillame’s—is. Is Revillame’s right to free expression then under threat from the public demand that his advertisers withdraw from his program?

It isn’t: what’s under threat is his abuse of that freedom, to the extent of doing harm not only to such individuals as the six- year- old whose exploitation he encouraged and abetted, but also to Philippine society, to whose debasement programs such as his contribute via the long reach of television. Society can –in fact, it should– hold Revillame to account for both offenses.

All forms of free expression are subject to public accountability. As precious as it is, the exercise of press freedom, for example, is, by common agreement and the consent of practitioners themselves, subject to scrutiny and censure. Any editorial writer, columnist or reporter can be held to account for bias and inaccuracy, doing harm to the subjects of a report, subjecting them to ridicule, stereotyping them or encouraging discrimination against vulnerable groups, and for a host of other offenses.

The decision of Revillame’s sponsors to withdraw their ads is a right they’re exercising in behalf of the public’s call for accountability. Their withdrawal is voluntary and light years away from capitulating to the presidential coercion and bribery (he offered the film companies tax breaks) Estrada brought to bear in 1999 to silence the press.

But will the withdrawal of Revillame’s sponsors in behalf of the public clamor against Revillame’s abuse of his right to free expression set a precedent? One hopes that it will– and it should, towards the making of a discerning public able to distinguish between authentic public service and mere self-indulgence, trickery and deceit.

(BusinessWorld)

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