Changing Owners, Changing Interests

Posted by cmfr | Posted in In Medias Res | Posted on 11-08-2017

By Luis V. Teodoro

THE PRIETO family decision to sell its majority interests in the Inquirer media group to  business tycoon Ramon S. Ang,  president of San Miguel Corporation, the largest conglomerate in the country and a major advertiser, has understandably raised concerns among journalists, media advocacy groups and non-governmental organizations. It is also provoking questions in those other sectors of the population aware of the pivotal role of the media in shaping mass understanding of  public issues as a crucial component of informed citizen discourse and decision-making, as to how the change in ownership will affect the group’s reporting and analysis.

Changes in the ownership of any media organization have always raised concerns. But it has become especially relevant today, when the country is grappling with a regime whose authoritarian bent and erratic policies and actions, among them the brutal anti-illegal drugs campaign, are challenging the “business-as-usual” tendency of the media to look at events and issues.

Mr. Ang’s acquisition of controlling shares in what is arguably the most influential media organization in the Philippines — which consists of a daily newspaper, an online news site and a radio station, among others — has thus provoked renewed concern over how the business and political interests behind the media affect the way they report and comment on the news.

Media practice on a daily basis validates the view that the owners of print and broadcast organizations in predominantly privately-owned media systems use their control over their media holdings to defend and advance their business and political interests. Advertiser interests are similarly pivotal in the way media reports are framed. The same interests can lead to the media organization’s killing stories outright if unfavorable to advertisers, or giving them undeserved prominence if favorable.

The media are public service institutions charged with providing the citizenry the information it needs to understand what’s going on in the world. But they are privately-owned businesses and necessarily political enterprises, which creates a fundamental conflict of interest between the public’s right to accurate and fair information and the interest of owners and advertisers in getting favorable media treatment.

The capacity of journalists to accurately and fairly report and comment on the news depends on how freely they’re able to gather information as well as to process and write about it. But the gatekeeping function of editors can lead to reports and commentaries being rewritten or even censored to suit publisher and advertiser interests, or to being killed altogether. Both here and in other countries where the media are privately-owned by corporations and depend on advertisers to sustain them, what appear in the media often reflect corporate as well as personal, familial and class interests.

But the transfer of Inquirer group ownership will not usher in a significant departure from the way its newspaper, online site and radio station have chosen, framed and presented the news in the past. For example, the mining interests once identified with the Inquirer significantly influenced its coverage of mining as a public issue. Its evidently biased and less than fair reporting on former Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Gina Lopez’s attempts to compel mining companies to be environmentally responsible and to shut down others was a clear indication of how owner interests affected its reporting.

The only change likely to occur with the Ang take-over is the way Mr. Ang’s and San Miguel food, spirits and other interests could shape the way the news is presented. The intrusion of owner interests into Inquirer group operations is hardly unprecedented.

But to what extent Mr. Ang’s and San Miguel’s interests will affect how reports are chosen and presented is what’s  critical to the way Inquirer journalists will be doing their jobs, and therefore to the kind of reports and opinions they will inflict on the public. Will Mr. Ang designate surrogate managers to micro-manage the group’s performance or will he himself assume that prerogative? Or will he leave it to the Inquirer editors and journalists to internalize what they believe are his and San Miguel’s best interests?

Mr. Ang is unlikely to himself intervene in the day-to-day operations of his newest acquisition. Although it has happened, that form of owner intervention is rare.  In most instances, it is the editors and even individual journalists themselves who on their own shape the news in accordance with what they assume will be acceptable to owners and advertisers.

Journalist internalization of owner views has always been a major problem in the corporate media. It is a reality that, despite the billions of bytes the media disseminate daily, has created a situation in which the mass of media audiences is only partly informed about the issues that concern them — or worse, are misinformed about them.

Independence, truth-telling and relevance have always been the primary values in journalism that when diligently observed can provide the media audience the information and analysis it needs to understand the world. Being true to these ethical standards is particularly challenging today, when a troubled and troubling regime is demonstrating daily the need for news media exactitude,  accuracy and fairness.