Teapot tempest

Standard

Although it’s supposed to be the talk of the town, and getting 36,000 visits a day not only from Netizens from the Philippines but also from other countries, the Brian Gorrell blog and the controversy surrounding it has only been reluctantly covered by the Philippine media.

For those whose interest has been focused on the rice crisis, hunger, unemployment, several economists’ doubts over the alleged 7.3 per cent growth of the economy last quarter, the National Broadband Network scandal, China-Philippine relations, the Spratlys, and other issues too many bloggers would sniff at as less than earth-shaking, the blog came online in furtherance of Gorrell’s campaign to get back US$70,000 that he claims was swindled off him by an ex boyfriend who’s allegedly a member of Manila high society, and whose associates cover its doings as lifestyle page “journalists”.

Among other claims, Gorrell has written that what he calls the “Gucci Gang” are free- loading, drug-snorting, pretentious brutes and bitches — parasites who live off the freebies and handouts of such PR events as the launch of this or that product line for socialites (and such other pretenders to the title as the pretty actress-whores kept by Manila’s aging but rich Lotharios) and the rest of that crowd.

It’s not an unfair picture of Manila high society, it being the domain as well of the low. But it’s the truth of Gorrell’s charges against his alleged ex-lover and his cohort that’s yet to be established. Primarily we only have his word for it via his blog, and while he has allowed one of those he has attacked in it some space, a blog is by its very nature self-serving, and the instrument of whoever created it.

That a blog is neither newspaper nor broadcast station seems obvious, but it’s a fact that’s nevertheless often missed, especially by those bloggers who’ve only recently discovered — and misconstrued — the miracles of free expression.

A blog provides those who would otherwise have no other way of venting their spleen the means to inflict their opinions no matter how putrid on whoever chances upon it or is directed to it in cyberspace. While there’s no shortage of bloggers who’re also journalists so steeped in the professional and ethical standards of journalism they don’t release anything into cyberspace that they haven’t verified, legions more hardly know the difference between gossip and fact, and don’t care to find out.

That’s not all. Any idiot with a desk or lap top and an Internet connection can start a blog. He or she decides when it goes up, what goes into it, who gets to comment in it, and how long it stays up. A blog is a distinctly individual thing, unlike the collective undertaking a newspaper or a news broadcast is, in both of which there are editors and a desk whose job is to look for errors in fact, correct bad grammar, and yes, check for libelous remarks.

It’s true that some newspapers and news broadcasts seem to be run by idiots too, and have been either printed or aired by people who’re just like most bloggers — i.e., they haven’t had a single day’s training in what they’re claiming to be doing, which is journalism. There’s this difference, however: responsible, professional journalists know the latter for what they are, and have about the same attitude towards them as doctors have toward quacks, which is to say that they don’t hold them up as exemplars of the profession, whereas most bloggers don’t make that distinction among themselves.

As for libel, (non-journalist) bloggers have been known to sneer at journalists’ concern for it, dismissing it as a concession to censorship. It can be. But while the libel law has been used to intimidate journalists, and Filipino journalists lost the most famous case in this country — the Aves de Rapina case — through a court biased for an official of the US colonial regime, it does have the eminently valid purpose of protecting media subjects from the abuse of the overzealous and/or malicious.

Not that journalists have not risked libel suits — if the stakes are high enough. Some indeed have braved prison and even death, both during the martial law period as well as the present regime, which at various times has threatened journalists with inciting to sedition cases and the withdrawal of network franchises, as well as listed them as “enemies of the state”.

Many have indeed died, 90 percent of the community journalists who have been killed in this country since 2001 for exposing corruption and criminality. Scared most journalists aren’t. But it’s a rare blogger who’d knowingly take the same risks while shooting his mouth off.

In many instances journalists risked life and limb and fortune for demonstrably relevant reasons — and by relevance I mean the value of what they were reporting to other lives, in some cases millions of them. Journalists did not shirk reporting the November 29, 2007 incident, for example, and neither have they evaded the responsibility of reporting on the rice crisis, which for the impact it’s likely to have on the fortunes of the Arroyo regime is potentially as risky as covering the NBN scandal. Of course they’ve tried to steer clear of libel suits at the same time by reporting only what they’ve verified, and refusing to be drawn into name-calling even the people they detest the most.

Too many bloggers, unaware of why certain professional and ethical standards have developed in the course of journalism’s long history, prefer to call people names, among other reasons because they think it’s argument enough. (It isn’t.) There’s also the fact that if they’re in Australia the people they’re insulting who are in the Philippines can’t sue them — a convenience denied, say, a journalist in the Philippines who can be sued, and who probably has been (by, among others, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s husband).

So some sneer, declaring that the newspapers and the networks are too scared to report the Gorrell case with any prominence, and have chosen to keep it in the entertainment pages. But it’s not a matter of being scared, but of the fact that that’s exactly where stories like this belong, and only once, please. In the nitty-gritty, what it’s all about is an Australian who admits to having been swept off his feet by one of those sweet- talking scammers of which Manila has no shortage, who lost his life savings in the process, and who hopes to recover them by shaming the alleged perpetrator and his cohort. This story deserves the front page?

Of course lesser stories have landed on the front pages and in the evening news for the sake of “human interest”, but that’s an argument for the newspapers and the TV news programs to be more judicious in their decision-making rather than an argument in favor of putting this particular storm in a teapot together with the stories on the Spratlys and how the Arroyo regime’s trying to soften the impact of the rice crisis by cozying up to China.

But there’s a real story in the Gorrell to-do, and it’s in how journalism — or what passes for it in the lifestyle pages — is so far gone in corruption and unprofessional conduct, among other reasons because many of the people who’re into it are there not for their skills as journalists but for their claimed connections with the high and mighty. That’s what mainstream media can be condemned for — for allowing this to happen: nay, for encouraging and abetting it, to the detriment not only of people like Gorrell but also and primarily that of the foolish Filipinos who follow the lifestyles of their self-proclaimed betters more assiduously than they do extra-judicial killings.

(BusinessWorld)

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