TV Patrol and the anchor’s new clothes

Chay F. Hofileña

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Friday night was a situation waiting to happen. ABS-CBN big bosses who have long been in the media business surely must have seen it coming, but they opted to take the risk in 2010 anyway.

Chay HofileñaWas the President rude and was he crude when he openly criticized ABS-CBN top anchor Noli de Castro during the silver anniversary celebration of the network’s flagship primetime newscast?

He was invited to speak during the grand celebration at the Manila Hotel on Friday, July 27, but instead of edifying the 25-year-old newscast and its people, he zeroed in on one of the public faces of the network and went on a stinging offensive against de Castro.

Anim na taon ang ipinagkaloob sa kanya para tumulong sa pagsasaayos ng mismong inireklamo niya. Pero ngayon, tayo na nga ang may bitbit na problema, tayo na nga ang tutugon dito, pero masakit nga ho, may gana pang hiritan ng nagpamana?” (He was given 6 years to help fix what he was complaining about. But now, we have inherited the problem and carry the burden, and we are the ones tasked to respond to it. But what is painful is that he who passed on the problem now has the gall to criticize us.)

Anchor of TV Patrol since its creation in 1987, the 63-year-old de Castro stopped being a broadcast journalist when he became senator in 2001 and then became vice president of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for 6 years starting 2004.

But just 5 months after he left government, he returned to the media to resume anchor duties in 2010 – spending the last two years reading the news and engaging in commentary and opinion, some of it negative and directed at the Aquino administration.

Informed commentary and opinion are expected of the media so that once it is anything less, it becomes suspect, invites allegations of partisanship, and diminishes credibility.

Friday night was a situation waiting to happen. ABS-CBN big bosses who have long been in the media business surely must have seen it coming, but they opted to take the risk in 2010 anyway.

Revolving door

They decided to take back with open arms their former anchor and reinstate him as one of the network’s faces. Never mind if de Castro was former vice president under the previous administration. Never mind if it clearly spelled “conflict of interest” associated with the “revolving door” between media and politics.

The revolving door refers to the shifting roles that journalists, who jump into politics or government, think they can assume. After they’re through with government, they see nothing wrong with returning to their previous roles in the media, forgetting that the political ties and loyalties they had developed could compromise their work as journalists.

Relationships, indebtedness, financial strings, personal friendships, privileged information are just some of the interests at stake which could diminish the independence and credibility of journalists who choose to go through the revolving doors.

Would they be willing to disclose the extent of all these involvements and interests to allow their audience to decide for themselves whether a conflict of interest would affect the credibility of the information they are providing? Perhaps not. And even if they were, wouldn’t the information and criticism they provide always become suspect? If that were the case, what’s the point of going back to being a journalist?

More so in the case of de Castro – because his immediate boss, the former president, had been tainted with allegations of electoral fraud and corruption, did he think he could still be a credible journalist? Being vice president was too high up in the political hierarchy of the Arroyo administration for de Castro to remain immaculate.

The bosses of ABS-CBN obviously made nothing of this. Instead, they must have thought that politics and the media often mix freely in this country anyway, and that Filipino viewers have a short memory. They will remember de Castro as the thundering voice behind the “magandang gabi, bayan” greeting, and forget his lackluster performance in government, even his ties with Arroyo. They were treading on truly perilous ground.

Because one of the media’s numerous roles in a democracy is that of watchdog against the abuses of government, that watchdog better be beyond reproach. Otherwise, he invites the furious bark of others – which is precisely what happened last Friday.

Brilliant move?

Aquino has always been known to be a good communicator in Filipino. He is fluent and comfortable speaking the language. He can connect with the man on the street and is down to earth. He can also be brutally frank, throwing civility to the wind.

May naitutulong po ba ang mga walang-basehang spekulasyon?…Kung alam mong opinion-maker ka, alam mo rin dapat na mayroon kang responsibilidad,” the President fired, referring to a National Bureau of Investigation rescue operation which was belittled as a set-up and allegedly involved the payment of ransom to kidnappers.

(Does baseless speculation do anything to help?…If you know you are an opinion-maker, you should also know you have responsibilities.)

Had de Castro been right in front of him, it would have been a truly awkward moment for the ABS anchor.

Shifting gear towards the end of his speech, Aquino apologized for his frankness and said, “Maganda na ho siguro yung totoo ang sabihin para magkaunawaan tayo nang maliwanang.” (Maybe it’s good to speak the truth so that we understand each other clearly.)

Was it the right time and place to shoot? Perhaps not, because it was supposed to be a moment of celebration, and not a time for rebuke or an accounting of mistakes or misjudgments.

But perhaps it was the best time, too, because if the intent was to get attention and deliver a stinging message to the media as an institution, he got it. What better way to convey frustration about negativity in the news (not that it is all the time undeserved) than to express it during an influential network’s celebration for its flagship newscast?

The response of Ging Reyes, ABS-CBN head of news and current affairs, was appropriate. “Criticism is not a monopoly of journalists and media practitioners. The President had as much right to free speech as every citizen.”

It was also standard. She said, “Walang bad feelings, walang pikunan at kami’y naniniwala na marami naman din talagang babatikos sa atin dahil di lahat matutuwa sa ating binabalita at nilalabas sa TV Patrol.” (No bad feelings, no pique, as we believe that many will criticize us because not everyone is happy with what we report and broadcast on TV Patrol.)

What’s at stake

Let’s be clear about the issues. It’s not about press freedom. It’s about conflict of interest, truthfulness in reporting and commentary, and ultimately, media credibility.

The whole incident reminds me of the Hans Christian Andersen tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” where only a child has the temerity to tell the vain emperor during a procession that he is wearing nothing at all.

In his rebuke, Aquino must have touched on a chord that resonated with many. Comments on Rappler’s story on Aquino’s criticism of de Castro have been wide-ranging, with more than a majority happy or amused.

Some disagreed with what Aquino did, saying that it was impolite, if not indicative of a president unable to live with criticism. After all, as an elected public official, he should learn how to roll with the punches. Others were supportive, saying that the media ought to shape up and re-examine the quality of its news delivery.

Spectators are starting to speak up and if this forces the network bosses to rethink the wisdom of recycling a former vice president and fitting him with anchor’s new clothes, that evening’s discomfort might well have been worth it.

Read on: PNoy’s full speech at the 25th Anniversary of TV

 Chay Hofileña writes about media issues, authored the book “News for Sale: The Corruption and Commercialization of the Philippine Media (2004),” teaches Media Ethics and other journalism classes at the Ateneo University, and is Rappler’s Citizen Journalism/Community Engagement director. She was also a media ethics consultant for ABS-CBN under Maria Ressa, former head of the network’s News and Current Affairs division. Read her profile here


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Chay F. Hofileña

Chay Hofileña is editor of Rappler's investigative and in-depth section, Newsbreak. Among Rappler’s senior founders and editors, she is also in charge of training. She obtained her graduate degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York.