Today’s column is presented to satisfy a requirement that everyone and his uncle offer a commentary on the “demise” of ABS-CBN and the “chilling effect” the rejection of its application for a broadcast franchise has on “press freedom” in the Philippines. And yes, that sentence did take a few moments longer to write, because I had to keep stopping to make air quotes like Dr. Evil, that being the appropriate amount of seriousness with which to regard this “controversy” (See, I did it again just there). There’s a lot to unpack here; so, try to keep up.
The public debate over ABS-CBN’s loss of franchise — which is a mischaracterization of the problem, as they no longer had a franchise to lose when the House of Representatives took up the matter — has crystallized around two dishonest narratives.
On the one side are the “ABStards” (a term I did not coin, but I like it), whose argument is that ABS-CBN was only denied a franchise because President Rodrigo Duterte is abusing political processes to stifle dissent, particularly when the opposing voice is a media organization towards whom he holds a personal grudge. On the other are those — who are generally, but not entirely, diehard Duterte supporters (Dutertards, if you like) — whose argument is that ABS-CBN was rightfully denied a franchise due to questionable, if not downright illegal business practices and abusing the terms of its previous franchise, and that politics had nothing to do with it. Both arguments are at least partly wrong, but the latter is less wrong than the former.
Before we get into that, however, let’s dispense with this ridiculous notion that “press freedom” is being threatened, because the claim doesn’t even apply to the embarrassed ABS-CBN. Following the loss of that network’s broadcast franchise, there are 225 TV stations, 369 AM radio stations, 583 FM radio stations, 10 internet radio stations, at least five shortwave radio stations, 15 major daily broadsheets, 40 print tabloids, and dozens of local and regional newspapers still left in the country. ABS-CBN news alone has two websites, three mobile apps, six Facebook pages, six Twitter accounts, a Viber feed, and accounts on YouTube and Instagram. ANC, the network’s dedicated news channel, can still broadcast via two channels on Sky Cable (one regular and one high-definition), and on a number of channels carried by other cable operators throughout the country. ABS-CBN’s entertainment offerings make me want to rub salt in my eyes and jab bamboo slivers into my ears, so I didn’t bother to check those, but it is likely they have a similar number of alternative delivery options.
The access of the population to news, information and audiovisual distraction has not even been dented by ABS-CBN’s “demise,” and as several commentators including my colleague Bobi Tiglao in his column yesterday have pointed out, media critical of the establishment has not skipped a beat, and tends to become even more aggressive when threatened. So much for the “chilling effect on press freedom.”
If ABS-CBN wants to look for a root cause of its being denied a franchise, its leadership need only go stand in front of a mirror. This entire episode has only exposed the Lopez group as being atrociously bad at business — failing to realistically assess risks to its key assets, and take steps to eliminate or mitigate those risks. It would be laughable, if not for the several thousand blameless ABS-CBN employees and others who indirectly relied on the network’s normal operation who are now facing unemployment, that the Lopez’s idiotic hubris let what should have been a minor personal squabble — their essentially ripping off then-candidate Duterte for campaign advertising paid for but not aired back in 2016 — blow up into a real threat to their flagship’s sustainability. Standing on “principle” is foolish if one is clearly in the wrong.
Compare the Lopez’s situation to that of the Ayalas some time ago when they were in the President’s crosshairs over a number of questionable actions of Manila Water. That situation went from President Duterte loudly and publicly threatening to expropriate the company to the issues being quickly forgotten, because the Ayalas obviously know how to apply pragmatism when necessary — have a quiet, frank discussion with the President, and make an accommodation (in this case, a tie-up with equally savvy businessman Enrique Razon, with whom the Ayalas have a cordial relationship) that both resolves his grievances and protects the business’s fundamental assets. What it cost the Ayalas in doing that is a mere pittance in the long run, especially when compared with the damage an irritated President Duterte possessing an obedient Congress and no grasp of subtlety could do.
If it had just been the (legitimate) complaint President Duterte had against ABS-CBN for taking his money and not broadcasting his campaign commercials, then maybe the Lopez clan could have stood their ground. If that was all there was to it, the only real counterpunch President Duterte could have thrown would have been a lawsuit as a private individual. However, the old saying, “Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” applies here. They already knew their broadcast franchise was nearing expiration at that point and should have taken a hard look at what other vulnerabilities might be exposed in the course of the inevitable scrutiny that would come when they sought a renewal.
Instead, they inexplicably decided to overlook that — or are perhaps too incompetent to understand that basic precept of risk management — and put all their money on betting that they were too big to fail. The appeal to sentiment, the mistaken belief that public clamor would convince lawmakers that the Vice Ganda freakshow and Noli De Castro shouting tabloid-level headlines about pickpockets and car crashes were somehow national treasures that no one would dare deny the people was obviously wrong. It wasn’t even close, as it turned out.
The fate of ABS-CBN was deserved, if only to convince other business magnates that the banana republic perspective towards management that worked 30 years ago is not going to cut it anymore. To reinforce that lesson, what the government should do now, in answer to the calls from various parties that it should “take responsibility” for ABS-CBN’s displaced workers, is stand on the company to make certain that every one of its 11,000 or so workers — about 2,600 regular employees and the rest being contractual labor — are given proper compensation and other separation benefits (if applicable — not all of them will actually lose their jobs, given that ABS-CBN can still operate in a slightly diminished form) in exact accordance with the law.
As a parting thought, if there is anything to be said in mild favor of ABS-CBN, this entire sorry episode has revealed the basic irrationality of the concept of the “legislative franchise.” That, however, is an issue to take up in another discussion.