Looking for a justification

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Malacanang, through Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, has announced that it favors opening the Philippine mass media to foreign ownership through the Constitutional amendments it has been campaigning for. It had coyly avoided the issue in the past. Apparently it now thinks it necessary to declare in favor of foreign media ownership, on the assumption that the mass media are just another resource for exploitation, like the country’s mineral resources.

The proposal to amend Paragraph 1 of Section 11, Article XVI (General Provisions) of the Constitution (“The ownership and management of mass media shall be limited to citizens of the Philippines, or to corporations, cooperatives or associations, wholly-owned and managed by such citizens”) isn’t new. Foreign media ownership, said its proponents in the defunct Estrada regime, would broaden press freedom. It would also raise salaries and help reduce corruption among media practitioners.

These claims were shot down either for being invalid, for ignoring what’s actually happening in countries where global media conglomerates have bought into local media, or for putting hoped-for benefits for practitioners ahead of the media’s role in providing the public relevant information.

The only thing foreign media ownership has broadened in such countries as Australia– where media mogul Rupert Murdoch (Australian-born, but a US citizen) controls, among others, some 70 percent of the metropolitan press– is coverage of trivia, say thoughtful observers. The Australian journalist David Bowman, in his book The Captive Press, describes the Australian press as “without any underlying seriousness of purpose, except to make maximum profit…”

In the United Kingdom, Murdoch tabloids are also dumbing down the public with their mindless coverage of royal high-jinks and celebrity gossip. “Newspapers are getting dumber,” said Bowman. “They are increasingly filled with sensation, rumor, [press agentry] and bloated trivialities at the expense of significant facts.”

It’s easy to understand why. The focus being profit, the global media conglomerates cater to the lowest common denominator. This also happens in the Philippines, but with a difference. Most of them privately-owned, local media organizations dispense their share of trivia daily. But they do report and discuss public issues as well. The primary reason is that these issues are important to Filipino media owners themselves. You can’t say that of multinational media whose commitments are global—or everywhere, and therefore nowhere.

The framers of the 1987 Constitution thus knew what they were doing when they limited ownership and management of the mass media to Filipinos. No one can argue that foreign media companies can boost media salaries. But it won’t necessarily reform corrupt practitioners, some of whom are the highest paid in the country. Low salaries are not the only reason for media corruption. A culture that assumes that media people are entitled to all sorts of perks including easy money is the primary culprit. Foreign ownership can’t cure that.

But there are other issues to consider. Mass media scholar Dennis McQuail points out that the media can “serve to repress as well as to liberate, to unite as well as fragment society…and promote and hold back change.” The media also “attract and direct public attention,” “persuade in matters of opinion and belief,” “influence behavior,” “structure definitions of reality,” “confer status and legitimacy,” and “inform quickly and extensively.”

It should be obvious that what reality and whose reality is presented through the media are decided by who own and control them. The framers of the 1987 Constitution probably had that in mind.

The issues that confront nations are in these times mediated primarily by the mass media, which if controlled by competing interests can present a plurality of views rather than a single, dominant perspective. Foreign dominance can lead to precisely such a perspective—the viewpoint of the global media giants—divorced from such Filipino concerns as, for example, the integrity of the electoral system, and mending the creaky economy.

The question of ownership is thus critical in any enterprise, but especially so in the mass media. It’s a complex issue that can’t be simplified. And yet the most Ermita can say in favor of foreign media ownership is that it will “improve their management,” and Filipino media owners “do not have enough capital to fix up (sic) mass media.”

In addition to being vague (in what way will management of the media improve?), the first statement assumes that bad management is the media’s main problem and that Filipino managers lack management skills. Ermita’s “no capital” assumption forgets that the biggest media organizations in the country are bankrolled by huge corporations, and that the two leading broadcast networks make billions yearly.

It figures. Like many of its policies, the Palace position is a pre-ordained one looking for a justification, much like a character in search of a play.

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