After weeks of accusations in prime time and front page news, Vice-President Jejomar Binay appeared on ABS-CBN’s cable news channel ANC on Tuesday night in an even-handed interview with Lynda Jumilla.
The VP denied allegations of corruption in the construction of the Makati City Hall building, and the purported ownership of a claimed 350-hectare property in Batangas. He produced documents to back his statements and prove his innocence, as press, public and politicians have been demanding.
What’s wrong with this picture?
For those who know the National Union of Journalists Code of Ethics, the answer is plain. The NUJ’s Rule No. 8 states: “I shall presume persons accused of crime of being innocent until proven otherwise.”
If media followed this tenet of fairness and truth, it should be Senator Antonio Trillanes 4th facing Jumilla and other journalists, being questioned about his claims and having to produce papers to prove them.
That would be how media in America, Europe, and developed parts of Asia would handle such accusations. And that too is how the Philippine press would address charges — if the accused happens to be one of their own or one they wish to protect.
Imagine what The Philippine Daily Inquirer would do with aerial photos of a sprawling, luxurious farm if PDI’s controlling Prieto family were the one alleged to secretly own it. Certainly not a huge Page 1 picture with the banner: ‘Prieto farm 350-ha estate’.
But Philippine media will be Philippine media. When this writer, then the Cabinet Secretary, lamented the practice of rushing to print with appalling allegations without asking accusers for proof, a respected journalist and leading advocate of press freedom and responsibility, argued that the press don’t have time to wait for evidence in the race to get news out.
Thus, controversy coverage in the country is almost always down to “sabong” or cockfight journalism. After a politician rolls out charges sans any kind of basis, reporters quickly run to the accused and get denials and reactions. No matter that the claims are utterly outlandish. Nothing like two fuming public figures blaring at each other, to grab eyeballs on the evening news and the morning paper.
Which is why this writer, when he was Presidential Spokesperson, was not a Malacañang Press Corps favorite with the tack he employed in dealing with baseless accusations seeking comment.
Rather than issuing the usual denial, which just gives the newspaper or TV program its desired “Palace denies” headline, I always asked the reporter: Did you ask the accuser for proof of his claims?
The reporter would then query if Malacañang wanted proof. To which I would reply: No, I’m asking you if you did your journalistic duty and asked for the accuser for the basis of his charges? Interviewers would promise to get back to me, but none ever did. And the accusations often did not see print or broadcast. Evidently, they were hogwash.
Some media do ask for proof after being reminded of their professional duty. When then-Senator Panfilo Lacson claimed in 2007 that money given to legislators at a Palace function came from the Philippine National Police intelligence budget, reporters asked him for evidence.
The former PNP chief retorted that the agency should disclose its intelligence spending — something he knew it would never do — to prove that the funds didn’t come from it. In other words, Lacson wanted the accused to prove its innocence.
Another senator, Serge Osmeña, claimed in 2005 that then-Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo quit under Palace pressure. ANC anchor Carmina Constantino asked the senator what basis he could cite to make the people believe him. To which he replied: “The people will just have to take my word for it.”
Guard against media manipulation
With politicians keen to grab headlines and pummel opponents with sensational claims, and most media letting them have their way without even a whisper about the basis for allegations, how can a hapless newspaper reader and TV viewer defend against untruths? Here are some simple do’s and don’ts.
First, always check if the report mentions any evidence for the charges. If there is none, then almost surely, none was presented or even demanded. Otherwise, the proof would have been mentioned very early in the story.
And if one can contact the reporter or anyone in the paper or program, ask if there was any solid basis for the allegation. It would help make media do their professional duty to press for proof if they knew that intelligent Filipinos want more than sabong journalism.
Second, read newspapers and journalists of different leanings, not just the biggest-circulation journals or the writers one agrees with. This tack serves to get a more balanced perspective and a fuller coverage of events and issues.
Similarly, one must regularly look in the inside pages, where news not in line with a paper’s slant may be buried. A leading journal once ran a story about the Philippines having the best microfinance framework among more than 100 countries — on page 9 of its business section. Asked where news about the Philippines having the worst microfinance program would land, a senior writer of the paper quickly replied: Page 1. (That was in the past administration, by the way; it’s often the opposite today.)
Third, ponder the possible motives driving accusers. Are they and their organizations or advocacies helped by besmirching the reputation of the accused? Do they gain from having their names and faces prominently featured in media, especially in aid of election? Of countless televised congressional hearings, only a handful ever lead to legislation, but they certainly help raise name recognition for participating legislators.
Besides having political ambitions, legislators enjoy parliamentary immunity to make even false statements in Congress. They can also extend that abuse-prone privilege to witnesses. Plus: lawmakers can make threats to get the testimony they want, as Trillanes allegedly did to agri-tycoon Tony Tiu.
These and other tenets of media awareness are crucial not just for the public, but most especially for radio news programs. Most cite newspaper reports, often the most widely circulated papers. They should quote a broader range of publications, so they don’t end up disseminating the political leanings of just the biggest broadsheets or tabloids.
A final rule of thumb. When you read or hear a report, ask one simple question: If that news were about me or someone close to me, would I be so quick to believe, or will I want proof? Then demand for the accused what you would also require for yourself and your family and friends.
(Ric Saludo was Asiaweek assistant managing editor before serving in government in 2001-10.)