Covering presidents: Life and times of Malacañang Press Corps

MANILA, Philippines – Perhaps at no other time in its history has the Malacañang Press Corps (MPC) attracted so much public attention as during the Duterte administration.

What with President Rodrigo Duterte’s attacks on media and the issue of accrediting bloggers into Malacañang, it was inevitable that the light be shown on a media organization that has so far worked quietly behind the scenes, content to touch base with the public only through reports and articles produced by its members. 

The MPC is a group of local journalists accredited by the government to cover presidential and Malacañang events. They are the members of the press who interact the most with the President, to the point that he and his staff have come to know some of them by their first names.

Because of this access, being assigned to cover Malacañang is considered a “prime” beat by many journalists. Many of its members have moved on to head their media organizations. Some have become government officials themselves.

But beyond the daily grind of Palace coverage is the rich history behind the MPC. MPC members share fond and not-so-fond memories of the presidents they covered. 

Their stories show that, when it comes to how journalists interact with the most powerful official in the country, there’s more than meets the eye.

Origins

It’s probably safe to assume that as long as there were media organizations and a sitting President, there would be journalists covering the President. Where power emanated, there would be journalists writing about how that power was used. 

There was already a “Malacañang Press Corps” during the administration of Diosdado Macapagal in the 1960s, according to Carmen “Ching” Suva. Suva worked in Malacañang for 42 years handling media relations. In her book, From Macapagal to Macapagal-Arroyo, she recalled her experience serving 6 presidents. Its pages are littered with mentions of MPC.

From Macapagal to the administration of Ferdinand Marcos, MPC was a “small” group composed mostly of “veterans in their late 40s at least” who “observed proper dress code.”

They were all from the print media and most, if not all, were men. 

The group included Isagani Yambot of Manila Times, who became publisher of the Philippine Daily Inquirer; Max Edralin of Philippine Herald; and Primitivo Mijares of Daily Express. One reporter covering the Palace would even become Marcos’ Press Secretary.

Suva recalled Francisco Tatad, then an Agence France-Presse correspondent, attending press conferences in a “neat dark suit while smoking an aromatic pipe.” 

The press working area then was “always filled with cigarette smoke.” Suva did her best to keep the coffee flowing as reporters banged away on their typewriters or spoke with their editors on the phone.

When Marcos declared Martial Law on September 21, 1972, the atmosphere of Palace coverage changed. After the government closed down several newspapers, their reporters did not return to Malacañang.  

Regular Palace coverage only began to normalize when Corazon Aquino took over.

In came the “brat pack” that would breathe new life into MPC. 

Marichu Villanueva, now associate editor of The Philippine Star, was among the 20-something young guns who formed the “brat pack.” The term came from Ninez Cacho Olivares' column in the Inquirer that claimed their small group of young reporters was a “cartel” weaving fictitious news reports from Malacañang. 

The “brat pack” was angered by this, with one of its members, Malou Mangahas, even penning a rejoinder, but the name stuck.

Under the fledgling democracy, what drove Palace reporters to form a group was competition with the foreign press which was given more access to the new president at the time. Local journalists were reduced to ambush interviews while foreign media were given exclusive interviews.

Rain or shine, said Villanueva, their group would wait in a gazebo between the Premiere Guest House, where Cory's office was located, and the main Palace building, where official functions and meetings were held. Her short walk between the two buildings, just a stone's throw apart, would be their chance to interview her. It was around this time when their group decided rather informally to have officers. As with MPC today, there is a president and vice presidents representing print (now with online), television, and radio. 

One day, the “brat pack” had had enough of being treated as “second class” media. Wearing black shirts, they stationed themselves by the entrance of Malacañang as President Aquino walked in. But rather than their usual questions, they gave her the silent treatment.

With the support of their news desks, the local Palace reporters staged a boycott for two days – no ambush interviews, no stories save for the usual press releases.

This got Aquino’s attention. She spoke to then MPC president Joel Paredes asking the local press to “stop this nonsense.” Paredes said they would end the boycott in exchange for access.

Aquino agreed, granting MPC a weekly press conference and even opening up Cabinet meetings to them, at least for a time. This practice ended when media witnessed an argument between then National Economic Development Authority chief Winnie Monsod and then transportation secretary Reinerio Reyes. 

Dealing with presidents

What was work like for an MPC member in those early days?

Booma Cruz, another MPC veteran, recalled that the day’s events for coverage would be written on a giant white board in the press working area in Kalayaan Hall’s first floor. 

Today, the government harnesses technology, using text or a messaging app to send the President’s schedule to MPC members.

Villanueva, who began covering Malacañang in 1986 for News Today, remembered how MPC members would strategize to get story-worthy responses from Cory Aquino during her short walk to and from the Palace.

Cory Aquino

“We would prepare questions answerable by ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ The reporter with the biggest voice would be in charge of asking the question,” she told Rappler. Even if they could not get a verbal response from Aquino, they would still have a story if she “laughed off” or “shrugged off” an issue. 

But the lady president soon knew how to play the reporters’ game. One time, it was Villanueva’s turn to ask the question. She asked for everybody’s microphones and then got ready to flash Aquino her biggest smile. 

But before she could ask her question, the President exclaimed, “ Oh, Marichu, you have a very nice dress!”

The moment to ask would be lost as Aquino made her way through Malacañang’s entrance. Miffed but amused reporters would then return to the gazebo at around 6 pm to ambush interview the President again when she left the Palace.

This mirrors present MPC members’ own strategies to get President Rodrigo Duterte’s attention, in hopes of scoring an ambush interview.

The late Aquino’s diversionary tactics are not too far from Duterte’s jokes or flirtatious comments meant to distract reporters.

Each president had his or her own style and quirks which MPC members got to know through the years. Villanueva, who has covered presidents from Aquino to Arroyo, is familiar with many of them.

FVR

President Fidel V. Ramos was media-savvy and charismatic. He endeared himself to MPC members by berating his Presidential Security Group for elbowing reporters away. He told the PSG not to worry since he considers journalists as his “best security.”

Ramos was even playful with some reporters, posing wacky beside them as they slept in the plane during one of his official foreign trips, wrote Suva.

Yet Ramos was a good manager and communicator, giving a comprehensive report on his executive orders and issuances during Palace briefings, such that MPC members cried “data overload.”

Estrada

President Joseph “Erap” Estrada was not fond of formal press conferences, and preferred ambush interviews instead since they harked back to his days as a movie star.

Some MPC members regretted that they had turned into the Movie Press Corps since Estrada not only surrounded himself with actors and actresses in Malacañang, but only wanted to answer “show biz”-like questions.

Villanueva remembers when Estrada showed them his “war room” and she asked how much it cost the government. 

Pati ba naman detalye itatanong mo sa akin? (You’re asking me even details like that?)” he supposedly retorted.

Arroyo

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was a good communicator but also had plenty of spokespersons to address media, depending on the topic. 

Arroyo, however, had one pet peeve during press conferences: “he said, she said” questions. 

In one such press conference with MPC, she was asked what she thought of a statement made by a police general. Right there and then, she called up the police general to ask if he had indeed made those remarks. When the police official denied it, she shot back at the reporter, “See! That’s why I don’t like to answer questions like that!”

In another memorable press conference, she was asked by a reporter, to the incredulity of others, if she still has a sex life. She surprised everyone by replying, “Plenty.” Her one-word answer made headlines the next day.

Noynoy Aquino

President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III was very “laid-back” compared to his predecessors, recalled Bombo Radyo reporter and current MPC President Reymund Tinaza. Aquino was considered “approachable.” Especially during the early days of his presidency, he would even reply to text messages of MPC members.

One thing MPC members had to remember when covering Aquino was his tendency to talk about a topic multiple times in the same speech or press conference. A quote mentioned at the start could be rendered irrelevant later on because he clarified something.

“For press conferences and even speeches, you need to follow it from start to end to get the complete perspective and context of his response,” said Tinaza.

But all these presidents had one thing in common: they developed a certain level of rapport with MPC. 

Cory Aquino hosted dinners for MPC, even personally cooking a meatball dish for them, wrote Suva. Estrada and First Lady Loi Ejercito also hosted Christmas parties for MPC. Arroyo too invited the media to luncheons and informal gatherings. Noynoy Aquino and other Cabinet secretaries attended MPC Christmas parties, and even sang a song or two to liven up the program. 

Independence

Despite this – the sometimes friendly relationship between MPC and the powers-that-be – the value of MPC has always been its independence, said Villanueva.

MPC was not created by any government order and is not attached to any agency. Villanueva describes it as a “loose” group that was formed for practicality’s sake. 

Then, as now, MPC works with the government to ensure smoother and more professional coverage of presidential events.

“We coexist by tradition, with the primary goal to have a well-coordinated, organized, and synchronized media coverage,” said Tinaza.

RECOGNITION. President Rodrigo Duterte attends the oath-taking of Malacañang Press Corps officers. Presidential photo

Because of its separation from government, MPC has no right to demand food, transportation, or other perks from Malacañang, just as the government has no right to control MPC. The government, however, accredits media out of respect for the freedom of the press as enshrined by the Constitution.

The presidents Villanueva had covered respected MPC because of this independence, she said. 

“We have shown independence, that we are not beholden to anybody. Not even the President is spared from our critical thinking, critical analysis, critical evaluation of the news. We interpret the news, but we see it on a higher level, for public interest, national interest,” she said.

No group is perfect. She admitted there were MPC members who were lazy. The Palace beat is not exempt from its share of corrupt or exploitative media.

But, by and large, MPC leaders have tried to keep alive the discipline of responsible journalism among members. In her day, they even wrote a code of ethics and displayed it prominently in the press working area.

There are claims that MPC practices “pack journalism.” But Cruz said that, in her time, there was “intense” yet “friendly competition" among reporters.

“You don’t leave the Palace without making sure that it’s ‘safe’ for you to go home – or you’ll get scooped,” she said.

New challenges

MPC continues to face new challenges as its members are now dealing with a new president, his new priorities, and his different governing style.

The issue of accrediting bloggers, however, is not new. Even during the presidency of Noynoy Aquino, Palace officials welcomed certain bloggers to presidential events. 

What’s new under Duterte is the accreditation of bloggers who are fiercely pro-administration, adversarial to media, and vitriolic to the President’s critics. Some of these bloggers have spread disinformation or outright lies. (READ: State-sponsored hate: The rise of pro-Duterte bloggers)

Villanueva worries that Palace accreditation, so hard-won by MPC members, will be given to mere “ego-trippers” who would use access to the President for their own selfish ends, such as driving popularity for their blogs or social media accounts.

The “interim policy” by the Presidential Communications Operations Office, with its sparse requirements for bloggers, does not prevent this from happening. 

There are more practical concerns, like how bloggers’ accreditation could get in the way of smooth media coverage of presidential events. 

As MPC responds to the times, its rich history shows it has weathered many storms and may weather still many more. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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