The monitored as monitor

Martin Andanar
Standard

APPARENTLY UNIQUE in the Philippine press freedom regime, the practice of appointed and elected officials’ serving as newspaper columnists, or as television or radio commentators, blurs the necessary distinction between the government as object of public scrutiny, and the free press’ critical function of monitoring government. It creates a conflict of interest between the government’s and its officials’ interest in getting favorable publicity, and the citizenry’s need for impartial reports and evaluations of events and issues of concern including government doings and policies.

Despite this contradiction, Martin Andanar, who heads the Presidential Communication Office (PCO), has begun writing a newspaper column which he says will be published twice a week. Mr. Andanar’s first two columns were masterpieces of fluff and personal glorification. In both op-eds he recounts how he attracted the attention of his current boss, President Rodrigo Duterte, whom he showers with the most lavish praise, including a totally uncalled for comparison with Jesus Christ. These are not the kind of columns that a newspaper would risk citizen and peer censure for.

Meanwhile there’s no news so far on whether, as it has reportedly been suggested by certain network decision-makers, newly designated Philippine Ambassador to the United Nations Teodoro “Teddy Boy” Locsin Jr. — who, like President Duterte, loves his expletives — will continue doing “political analysis” for the ABS-CBN program “#NOFILTER” via podcast from New York. Locsin’s co-host Prospero de Vera has also been appointed to the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) and as a member of the Philippine peace panel. No one is saying whether he will continue in the same capacity over the network. But given their official designations, to prevent a conflict of interest Locsin and De Vera have no other recourse than to resign their media engagements, or at least take a leave from them — unless, of course, they couldn’t care less about the complications of being both monitored and monitor.

A broadcaster in a previous life, Mr. Andanar, meanwhile, has definitely joined such other government officials who were at the same time writing columns or doing commentary as Raul Gonzalez, who was secretary of justice during the Gloria Macapagal Arroyo administration; the late Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, who in addition to a very active online presence, also wrote a column in the late 1980s for one of the Manila newspapers; and Ilocos Norte Governor Imee Marcos who still writes a column for a Manila tabloid. Gonzalez used his column to, among others, inveigh against Arroyo’s critics; Santiago to make her views known on such subjects as what she was doing as a government official. Writing in picturesque, in your face Filipino, Marcos has used her column to criticize political opponents such as Vice President Jejomar Binay.

This should be convincing enough proof that a public official cannot attempt to do the journalistic task of commenting on public, particularly government affairs without inviting the conclusion that whatever he says is necessarily biased in favor of his political and other interests and/or those of the government he serves. If the official’s intention is to extend the reach of his opinions in furtherance of public approval of government actions and policies by being in the media at the same time, this inescapable assumption makes the attempt counter-productive: the newspaper readers, radio listeners or television viewers he wants to reach are likely to have in mind the fact that he’s also in government each time he expresses his opinions.

Instead of the official’s being believed, what his being in both government and media at the same time understandably encourages skepticism. This is not to say that no one will take his views seriously; some will. But what’s likely is that in those cases he will be preaching to the choir, or talking to those already convinced.

Government officials are regularly interviewed by the press, their credibility being based not only on the assumption that they have sufficient knowledge of public issues and government policies, but also on the fact that their statements have been sought and evaluated because journalists regard them as reliable sources of information or knowledgeable comment. By directly addressing the citizenry through the media, however, an official effects a shift in emphasis from his presumed credibility as a media source to his presumed partisanship as a representative of government.
Given the limited impact of a government official’s sojourn in the media while he’s still in government, of what use would it be except as quite possibly a form of self-indulgence?

At the heart of the problem is the contradiction between being both monitored and monitor. As the late National Artist Nick Joaquin, who was himself a journalist, once said, you can’t be both St. George (a member of the press as monitor and “slayer” of government misdeeds) and the Dragon (the government) without compromising either.

Journalism suffers because of its debasement as a vehicle of public relations in behalf of government, while government suffers because it is likely to be perceived as encroaching on the right of citizens to fair and unbiased information and comment via the issuances of professional media practitioners. If every media organization were to have a government official in its stable of columnists and commentators, the end result for the public would be confusion and the consequent decline of the rational discourse needed in a democracy.

There is, of course, the critical question of why, in the first place, media organizations would go out of their way to hire government officials as columnists and commentators. Among the possible, and probably most charitable, answers is that they do so in the anticipation of a boost in ratings if the official goes on TV or radio, or in circulation and ad revenues if the official writes for a newspaper, rather than, as their decision makers are likely to put it, to better serve the public. Or did the official or his office perhaps exert some kind of pressure on the newspaper to which the latter had no choice but to succumb?

Another possible reason is equally unflattering for either — that the official’s involvement would either advance or protect the media organization’s interest in getting, or staying in, the good graces of government.

The latter concern is particularly timely. The relationship between the media and the Duterte administration has not been especially positive, starting off on the wrong foot when then president-elect Duterte, asked what his policy would be on the killing of journalists and media workers, launched into a diatribe in which he claimed that journalists are killed because they’re corrupt.

The relationship has since seen its ups and downs, with Duterte’s online supporters being especially brutal in their criticism of supposed media bias, and in threatening practitioners when it comes to their reporting the killing of drug pushers and even users. One can’t blame the more critical media organizations (others are so much less so) from being a little edgy, government being, as has been repeatedly demonstrated in the past, in a position to make things either easy or difficult to the economic interests behind the corporate media. Some form of accommodation, some indication that one isn’t really as biased as the media have been pictured in social media would seem to be in order. Unfortunately, such compromises, though seemingly reasonable, don’t augur well for adequately performing the duty of the press to satisfy the public need for meaningful information and fair analysis.

First published in BusinessWorld. Image courtesy of Gov.ph.

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