OVER the past several days, most of the major news outlets around Manila have carried two upbeat stories about RCBC bank, which is currently mired in the $81 million money-laundering scandal being investigated – rather ineptly, in our opinion – by the Senate and the Anti-Money Laundering Council.
The first was about the expressions of support for RCBC from several noted business figures and firms, all apparently customers of RCBC, who vouched for the bank’s overall good service and sound business practices despite its present difficulty, and gave its directors and management team a vote of confidence. The second story was the disclosure that RCBC’s two biggest shareholders, Pan Malayan Management and Investment Corp. and Taiwan-based Cathay Life Insurance respectively, increased their stakes in the bank in the wake of the scandal.
Reporters in both instances, according to information from the field, were first tipped off to the stories by media releases from or on behalf of RCBC. That is not unusual; businesses large and small use the services of public relations experts to help them “put their best foot forward” in good times and bad.
Our job in the media, however, is to put what “good news” companies want us to share with the public in a proper and factual context. It is actually of very little consequence to the main issue of the money-laundering scandal that big business customers have confidence in their bank. It adds a bit of depth to the story, perhaps, in the analogous sense that the neighbor of one suspected of being a murderer might say, “He was always very polite to me,” but does nothing to address the facts of the issue at hand.
Confidence in RCBC as a company was also the apparent intended message of the disclosure of additional share purchases by RCBC’s two biggest stockholders. Indeed, buying any company’s stock is an expression of confidence in that company, but in the case of RCBC, most (to be fair, not all) outlets reporting on the stock purchases overlooked a simpler and much more likely explanation for them: In the wake of the scandal, RCBC’s share price dropped, from closing at about P34 per share in the days before the February 29 public disclosure of the scandal, to a low closing price of P29.10 per share on March 22.
According to various sources, both Pan Malayan and Cathay Life bought their original stakes in the company for between P40 and P45 per share, a piece of information that suddenly makes the ‘expression of confidence’ look much more like ‘knowing a good deal when they see one,’ since even RCBC’s harshest critics would certainly agree that, despite the scandal, the bank remains a valuable business that is not going to disappear.
A certain degree of sobriety is required on the part of the media and its audience when confronted with apparent “good news” about an organization in trouble. Perceptions and opinions are not evidence of anything more than the perception or opinion of the person or organization expressing them. A man can be a friendly neighbor and a vicious murderer at the same time; a large, wealthy bank can have thousands of satisfied clients and have been negligent or otherwise acted wrongly in a money-laundering issue at the same time as well. Popularity is no more evidence of innocence than unfavorable opinions are evidence of guilt.
If anything, the recent stories about RCBC, positive or otherwise, simply underscore the critical need to move the money-laundering case from the informal and ultimately pointless hearings – the Senate, after all, can only present its opinion on the matter, and has no personality on its own to prosecute or punish violations of the law – and to the hands of the proper authorities in the Philippines and elsewhere, whose work is evidence-based and has appropriate legal consequences.
Our leaders owe it to everyone involved, the people of Bangladesh foremost, but also RCBC and the various other parties, to facilitate a swift and truthful resolution to the money-laundering scandal. We in the media, by the same token, owe it to our leaders to support that aim through responsible reporting of the subject and its related issues.