SEN. Antonio Trillanes 4th, the anti-Duterte senator who has recently caught the eye of some international broadcasters, has been panned by some critics for his rather insipid replies on HARDtalk, the British Broadcasting Corp.,’s interview program known for its tough, caustic, if not downright rude questions from its host. He was interviewed via satellite from Manila last week.
One columnist-friend called the interview a “24-minute disaster” for the former navy captain, turned coup plotter. But without absolving him, I would reserve my greater disappointment for Stephen Sackur, the BBC host. He did not know his subject enough, and his questions were mostly superficial and dim-witted.
Trillanes, now on Youtube, was probably the least intimidating of recent HARDtalk interviewees. Some of us have watched strongmen like Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Gen. Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, the Burmese junta leader Thein Sein, Teodoro Oblang of Equatorial Guinea, and at least three Singaporeans of note. First, we heard Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew with Tim Sebastian, the first HARDtalk host, and later (as Senior Mentor Minister) with Sackur. Then we heard Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Deputy Prime Minister Tharnam Shanmugaratnam also with Sackur.
David Frost is better
Unlike the interviews of the late Sir David Paradise Frost, OBE, which could get tense without making you feel uncomfortable, HARDtalk interviews tend to evolve into verbal jousts. Each one tends to be an experience; Frost on the other hand was always more pleasurable. My favorite Frost remains his 1977 interview with Richard Nixon, which gave us the unrepeatable line about presidential power: “When the President does it, that means it is not illegal.” This appears to have become the guiding light of many Presidents. And his historic act of contrition: “I let down my friends. I let down my country. I let the American people down. And I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life.”
There were others. Among the most moving were Frost with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in their earlier years; with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, while he recited Shakespeare and talked of his Welsh heritage, among other things; with Muhammad Ali talking of how he would whip the hitherto undefeated heavyweight champion George Foreman in their coming bout; with President George Bush Sr. after he was elected President, talking of his family life and the loss of a daughter to leukemia, and then about the war on terror after the Gulf War; and Frost’s famous interview with his friend Henry Kissinger, which cost him their friendship for the next 20 years.
In that interview, Frost spoke about the US bombing of Cambodia in 1969, which Nixon denied in a speech in 1970. “Why did Nixon say something that was not true?” he asked Kissinger. “Because Nixon was given to hyperbole,” Kissinger answered. “But why did you say the same thing in your own press briefing 30 minutes later?” Frost asked. “That was a mistake,” Dr. K answered and they never spoke again for the next 20 years.
The Lees better than most
In the case of HARDtalk, my favorites are the interviews with the Singaporeans. With their natural charm, they have managed to do much better than others in putting rude interviewers in their proper places, instead of being intimidated by them. The old man Lee Kuan Yew started it all. He begins his March 2015 interview with Tim Sebastian by admonishing the latter to be more precise when attributing specific quotes to him. “I phrase myself very carefully,” he said, “It’s my legal training;” he expected his interviewer to do the same. He then proceeded to educate the latter on why he was doing what he was doing in Singapore.
In a recent interview, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had to restrain Sackur’s rather energetic questioning of Singapore’s policies vis-a- vis the media, homosexuals and some social values. Since he did not interfere with the British press councils, they shouldn’t try to interfere with the way he was trying to run Singapore, he said. For his part, the Deputy Prime Minister Shanmugaratnam was reported, in one online review, to have “sucker-punched” Sackur during their encounter at the 45th St. Gallen Symposium in Switzerland on May 7. 2015.
Lee, whom Nixon was said to have compared to Disraeli, Bismarck and Churchill, may have set the bar too high for others. Having earned a rare double-starred first honors at Cambridge University, where he studied law, and having led Singapore’s journey from “a Third World backwater to a First World oasis” in so many years, LKY was intellectually way above any HARDtalk anchor, or most prime ministers of the British Commonwealth of his time, for that matter.
This assured the public of competent responses to any tough or even rude questions from any interviewer. But this did not prevent HARDtalk from asking its trademark tough questions about political power, governance and authoritarian rule. HARDtalk obviously speaks for a staunch liberal democratic ethos, and the rigor and vehemence of its questions spring from this position. But in the interview with Trillanes, there was a surprising inversion of perspectives and roles.
Where Sackur failed
Instead of asking Trillanes about President Rodrigo Duterte’s rising authoritarianism, Sackur tried to put Trillanes on the defensive for opposing such authoritarianism. For their part, the senator’s critics were quick to pounce on his failure to answer Sackur’s questions well, while turning a blind eye to the interviewer’s failure to ask the right questions about the country’s real situation. Sackur advanced a number of false or at least unsubstantiated premises, upon which he sought to build a case in favor of DU30, but sadly Trillanes failed to demolish them.
For instance, Sackur quoted Secretary of Finance Sonny Dominguez, without naming him, as saying that the proliferation of drugs, which has allowed DU30’s minions to killsome 8,000 drug suspects, is at the root of the Maute terrorism, which has destroyed the Islamic city of Marawi, after more than a month of fighting, which is still going on. Since when has the Finance Secretary become an authority on the drug war or terrorism?
DU30 first started theorizing about the alleged combination of drugs and terrorism during a recent dinner at Villamor Airbase with visiting US Sen. Cory Gardner, chairman of the Senate foreign relations subcommittee for Southeast Asia, who allowed him to do all the talking. This theory has not been independently verified, despite the reported haul of illegal drugs discovered by the police in the unsecured houses of some absent Moro homeowners. What the authorities have verified is the claimed involvement of the extremist IS, which has made Marawi the seat of its Eastern Province, and where foreign jihadists have descended to take part in the siege. This is the same group that attacked London, Manchester and Paris in recent days, but which Sackur mysteriously failed to talk about with Trillanes.
Obedience to the law
Sackur further quoted the same Cabinet secretary as saying the time has come for everyone to realize that “obedience to the law is not optional.” The BBC interviewer should have realized that these words could only be quoted to the DU30 government rather than to any other group or individual. For it is the government that has wrecked the rule of law and the constitutional order. On May 23, 2017, while DU30 was in Moscow, the IS-linked Maute terrorist group attacked Marawi, prompting DU30 to issue Proclamation 216, declaring martial law and suspending the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in the whole of Mindanao for a period of 60 days.
Under the Constitution, the President can do this only in case of invasion or rebellion, when the public safety requires it. Within 24 hours, the Congress, if not in session, must convene in joint session according to its rules without need of a call, and within 48 hours, the President must report his action to Congress in person or in writing. By a vote of a simple majority of all the members of the two Houses, the Congress can reject the Proclamation, which rejection cannot be set aside by the President.
Now, those who do not believe an actual invasion or rebellion exists, and that public safety requires Proclamation 216, have asked the Supreme Court to declare that it has no constitutional basis. At the same time, the Congress, which is currently in session, has refused to sit as one body, and the President has refused to make his report. Therefore, a few others have asked the Court to compel the Congress to follow what the Constitution commands. But the Speaker of the House of Representatives has declared he would tear to pieces any ruling from the high court should it order the Congress to convene in joint session.
All this shows that the proclamation intended to end Marawi’s crisis is legally unenforceable because incomplete; but since DU30 is determined to enforce its presumed powers, he has effectively turned himself into a revolutionary President, operating outside, above and beyond the Constitution and the rule of law. He should be told to obey the law before anybody else.
The BBC interviewer quotes the number of those killed in the drug war but fails to wonder who should be held accountable for the killings. Instead, he commends DU30 for doing exactly what he promised to do if elected—-that he would kill drug pushers and users and dump them at Manila Bay to fatten the fish. He quotes the reported opinion of the so-called “elite”, namely, that the streets of Manila are now safe because of the killings, and that DU30 continues to enjoy allegedly high popular support.
The big lie
Unfortunately, Trillanes failed to shoot down this big lie by saying that DU30’s 94 percent popularity rating after the election has now come down to 75 percent. This was a colossal mistake, and he and those who otherwise agreed with his basic position on DU30 and his cruel and brutal policies must now suffer for it. The local political rating industry has never been run by any kind of verifiable truth or professional integrity, but strictly by political opportunism and money. Just look at the math. DU30 won 38 percent of all the votes cast—less than a simple majority.
And yet a few days later, the opportunistic polling agencies announced his nearly 100 percent “popularity” surge. The fairest statement that can be made about this is that in a country where it is easy to manipulate, intimidate and corrupt people and even institutions, you could never get an honest opinion survey on an all-powerful lord whose solution to everything is kill, kill, kill. If the people being polled do fool the pollsters, the pollsters will try to make money for themselves by fooling everybody else.
But the fact that the Magdalo group in Congress has attempted to file an impeachment complaint against DU30 knowing it would be thrown out by his flunkeys and sycophants without a hearing, and that one Mindanao lawyer has found the courage to file a complaint before the International Criminal Court at the Hague, based on the allegations of a self-confessed member of the so-called Davao Death Squad, means that the will to fight political brutality and authoritarianism is alive and well.
It is a pity that Trillanes failed to make use of the free BBC time to make this fact absolutely clear. But a greater pity that BBC’s flagship interview program failed to live up to its name. In this age of the mass media, this failure could inflict a greater injury on our society than the failure of our political leaders.