• Hysteria is not good image management

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    foto Ben Kritz

    This has been an exciting week in the Philippines, with so many apparently critical events happening simultaneously that one hardly knows which one to concentrate on first. Perhaps that is why most of the mainstream media—and obeying their cue, most of the social media as well—initially focused on the least relevant topic, the announcement by popular singer Charice Pempengco that she is actually a lesbian. Pempengco is not the first to attract publicity with that sort of personal revelation and she won’t be the last, but why the media continues to assert that something that is of absolutely no importance to anyone other than the party in question (and, I suppose, her personal companion) is a matter of public interest will continue to be a mystery. Especially when there are more serious issues that demand attention, such as:

    • Another mysterious fatal explosion at an Ayala Land property: The still-unexplained explosion in a condominium at Ayala Land’s Serendra complex in Fort Bonifacio last Friday night claimed the lives of three Abenson deliverymen who had the supreme misfortune to be passing by at the moment it happened, and has set off a frenzy of speculation among the public. What fuels the conspiracy theories is the possibly, or possibly not, coincidental fact that it involves a property owned by the competitor of the Sy family’s SM, in the same neighborhood where SM, the city of Taguig, and the Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA) are embroiled in a heated conflict over the property where the brand-new SM Aura Premier now sits.

    Many have come to believe that the powerful Ayala conglomerate has managed to impose regulatory capture over the BCDA, and perhaps the government at large, mainly because of the transparently hostile recent actions of the BCDA toward SM and the city of Taguig. Although the BCDA would of course hotly deny they are acting on behalf of one of the Aquino administration’s most important backers, suspicions are not allayed by moves such as BCDA President Arnel Casanova personally leading a security team to block construction of SM Aura’s access road (which happens to pass through the Ayala part of Fort Bonifacio), and the agency’s making an extraordinary attempt to seize the now three-year-old and nearly completed SM development by filing a court case this week, just as some feared they might (see last week’s column “BCDA creates an aura of uncertainty for investors,” May 30).

    Nor are suspicions allayed by the appearance of both the President of the Republic and Department of Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas at the blast site shortly after it happened. In Roxas’ case, since responding to and sorting out incidents such as the Serendra blast actually fall within the responsibilities of agencies under his management, his involvement might be dismissed as a move to stay publicly visible by one whose political relevance has all but evaporated lately. But why was President Benigno Aquino 3rd on the scene? The city of Taguig is in fact appropriately equipped with fire and police resources perfectly capable of responding to such an incident as they professionally trained to do, and, if a bigger crime is suspected to have taken place, the National Bureau of Investigation has a well-practiced process for deploying the needed investigators.

    Government hysteria in the form of the President’s personal involvement—which he confirmed by unnecessarily “ordering” the responsible agencies to determine the cause of the blast—sends one of two messages, neither of which inspires much confidence: Either the conspiracy theories that the government asks “How high?” when Ayala says “Jump” are at least partly correct; or the President and his key managers have a poor understanding of process control. Which explanation is correct is still being debated. Some social media commenters were quick to point out that, at about the same time as the Serendra explosion, five people died in a house fire in Las Piñas, a quantitatively more destructive event that didn’t warrant executive attention. On the other hand, an investigator in the Serendra incident has been publicly quoted as saying that the latest explosion is being compared to the tragic Glorietta blast of 2007, another mysterious, fatal incident at an Ayala property, one that was never adequately explained and for which the Ayala company avoided all liability.

    • The stock market is dropping, but the sky is not falling: The beginning of the week saw a 3-percent drop in the local stock market, reeling the index back to a level it has not seen since 2011. The significance of the decline was seemingly increased by the depreciation of the peso, which has decreased in value against the dollar from P40.67 on May 9 to P42.26 on June 1 (it has since recovered slightly to sub-P42 levels in the days since). Among people who do not fully understand the stock market—which, it is probably safe to say, includes most of the population—the impression is that the market has been walking on a knife-edge, needing only the smallest push to send it into a collapse.

    That is not the case at all, but some media are irresponsibly feeding public hysteria over it. For example, the online news site Rappler posted a report on Monday quoting PCCI Securities Brokers Corp. President Francisco Liboro as attributing the day’s 3-percent drop to investor reactions to the Serendra blast, a completely ridiculous assertion. In this paper, however, the same expert pointed out that a correction to a range of 6,500 points to 6,800 points has been expected, and that declines in Asian and US markets encouraged the local sell-off. After this rather more sensible report was published (and after Rappler was comprehensively mocked on Twitter for its original story), the Rappler report was updated to include the new information, but in the most minimal way possible.

    The bottom line is that the sources of information that everyone needs and should be able to rely on—the government and the media—must be more discerning and thoughtful in what information they are sharing intentionally or sharing indirectly through their actions, and how they are presenting it. Downplaying serious issues by focusing on trivialities such as a single celebrity’s gender orientation, misrepresenting events, or allowing incomplete information to create speculative hysteria is not only doing a grave disservice to the public, but is unnecessarily casting the country in a far worse light than reporting actual facts would.

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