The Press and Public Officials: Apart Because Different

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PERHAPS, THE public sees people in the news as all cut from the same cloth. Whether they’re working journalists, or elected or appointed to public office, the public stage they occupy separates them from the rest of the people and the latter seldom see any difference between them.

This blurring in the public mind must be corrected. The public should see the members of the press as essentially different from the public officials they cover, and both sides must take care to keep that line from being crossed.

The practice of appointed and elected officials’ serving as newspaper columnists, or as television or radio commentators, crosses the line between the necessary distinction of, on the one hand, the government as object of public scrutiny, and on the other, a free press’ critical function of monitoring government.

It constitutes a conflict of interest between the government’s and its officials’ interest in getting a good press, and the citizenry’s need for impartial reports and evaluations of events and issues of public concern, among them government deeds and policies. At the heart of what is basically an ethical problem is the contradiction between being both monitored and monitor. One can’t be doing journalism while at the same time being in government without compromising both, and in the process doing the public a disservice.

The government observes the demarcation when it decides to keep certain matters confidential, its officials briefing the press in a timely manner. But some officials have gone even farther by themselves doing media work. The media should be just as diligent about doing its work free from pressures from government officials, drawing the line when it comes to their separate identities and functions. Both too often need reminders about their institutional identity and responsibilities.

The case of Martin Andanar is instructive. A former broadcaster for TV5, Andanar is now better known as the administration’s lead architect in constructing the chief executive’s image and message.  But he has just crossed over again– this time to the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s op-ed pages, where he has found a welcoming mat.

While an anchor at TV5, Andanar admits in his first column that he was at the same time a volunteer in the campaign of then candidate Rodrigo Duterte. He says he did so out of conviction, writing that “this was the man who should lead the nation,– the only man, a Mindanawon, who could.”  His participation in the political field did not prevent him from continuing to work in private media, and it would be interesting to look into how his political engagement colored the programs he hosted.

The column goes on to compare his feelings at having been invited to serve in the Duterte Cabinet:  “ I was awed by that investment of faith in my abilities. It must have been how the fishermen at Galilee felt when Jesus walked over and told them to follow him. . .Like an apostle I obeyed.”

The words express the sort of unabashed admiration to be expected of the official charged with shaping the message of Malacanang, deciding on the “word for today” —the homily and sermon of the hour to be aired and broadcast by PTV-4,  the government stations of  Radyo ng Bayan, the Philippine News Agency (PNA) and other government-owned media outlets, which are all under his helm. The same message Malacanang preaches to the press corps assigned to the President’s Office by privately-owned news organizations. Surely Andanar has enough of a bully pulpit to work with. But he is over-reaching– and Inquirer is letting him.

Unfortunately, this kind of cross-over is not entirely new. Thirty years since the restoration of press freedom, we seem to need a review of the basics.

We have heard the arguments before to defend the practice. The choice, it is often said, is the publishers and the owners to make. But it is not a question of whether they can do it, since they have obviously done it. Another kneejerk response is the invocation of free expression: the public official too has a right to free expression. Surely, public officials have the entire government media system, as well as privately-owned media that more than amply provide him forums to express himself?

These principle of separation was flouted freely after the liberation of the press from government control in 1986, when several media organizations decided they could, for whatever reason,  share turf with politicians.

In December 1993, the Philippine Journalism Review (PJR), then a quarterly periodical, reported the trend of government officials writing as columnists and hosting TV talk shows. Some of these were even good public officials. It had become a “thing”– and some news organizations apparently felt that having a government official in their stable of commentators may have its advantages.

Not too many journalists publicly questioned the practice. Among the few was Julius Fortuna, then a columnist for the Manila Chronicle, who wrote:  “The practice of some government officials’ writing regular columns is highly irregular. It distorts the role of media in our society. In the democratic division of labor, the role of the government is to run the affairs of the state.  Reporting on events and commenting on events is best left to professional journalists.” Fortuna called on the Philippine Press Council to correct this distortion.

CMFR convened a meeting among media leaders to discuss the issue and thresh out a response. Should a public official be given regular space or time as a commentator in the news media?  Not everyone then had a clear answer.

But enough press organizations agreed that the press can publish the occasional opinion piece or commentary from a government official as these help amplify public understanding of policy and controversies. Regular column writing, however, was seen as an abuse on the part of the official and as a professional failure on the part of the news organization.  The fusion of functions could only weaken the independence and credibility of the press.

The principle of separation is significant. Journalists have a political function – it is to arm citizens with information that has been independently verified through a process free from  external political pressure. Just as the three branches of government are zealously protective of their authority and independence from one another, although these often fail, the principle is the  same for the separation of the press from government. These two institutions do interact – but must leave one another free to perform their constitutionally assigned tasks.

Opinion writing and commentary on whatever media platform are bound by journalistic standards to observe rigor and discipline through impartial analysis and the formation of  opinion. To what extent can these standards be observed by government officials whose agenda is to basically defend the government and its officials and to make whatever they do look like the epitome of wisdom?

The other concern is for the tilt that a news organization allows that may offset the balanced representation of the many voices in society that need to be heard. The Op-Ed pages can offer only limited space. Is it fair, given the failure of most organizations to give voice to a vast range of views, to favor the president’s message maker– indeed his messenger, his alter thinker, his own government-paid publicist—with still greater access to the public, and more space to perform his duty of making his boss look good?

The discussions in the nineties managed to squeeze out public officials from the press arena. There have been slips, indeed, with new players in the field and new formats, and some are coming to the practice cold and uninformed.

Inquirer has proudly boasted of its fearless independence. Now it has given Andanar regular space  to do his work. The decision raises questions about this transaction and the integrity of its editorial judgment.