Media News Analysis

Corrupt journalists put on notice

While Philippine President-Elect Rodrigo Duterte’s unvarnished warning to errant journalists – that they can be killed for their crimes – has caused consternation with media watchdogs and politicians across the world, there are many in the country who would welcome a more-robust approach to dealing with the prevalent, routine corruption which exists within the republic’s news industry.

Speaking in his home city of Davao, he told journalists that if they took bribes or engaged in other criminal activities, they deserved to die. “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch,” he said.

Ironically, there is no doubt that the profession which prides itself on rooting out fraud and graft in the country’s political and corporate dealings, has an enduring track record of criminal behaviour in its own right. And while summary execution of offenders would be a call too far for most, for serious crimes such as blackmail and extortion, larger custodial sentences would not be. A blacklist for convicted journalists, ensuring they could never practice the profession again, would also be firmly backed, as would a review of defamation legislation which many believe is weighted in favour of the wealthy news organisations. “That can’t be just freedom of speech. The Constitution can no longer help you if you disrespect a person,” Duterte said.

For journalists, the Philippines is the one of most dangerous country on Earth: 174 have been murdered there in the three decades since the end of strongman Ferdinand Marcos’ rule. “Most of those killed, to be frank, have done something. You won’t be killed if you don’t do anything wrong,” said Duterte, restating that there is a high level of corruption among Filipino journalists.

Of course, such measures would draw vehement criticism from the likes of Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders (RWB) outside the country and from the National Union of Journalists – though it accepts that corruption exists among its ranks – the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, and certain media bosses, inside the country. The RWB’s 2016 Press Freedom Index has the Philippines at 138th out of 180 countries – one place ahead of Venezuela, whose economy is in freefall, and two ahead of South Sudan which has been in the grip of a bloody civil war for the past two and a half years.

Protests aside, the fact is that corruption in the Philippine media is deeply entrenched. This is the home of “AC-DC journalism” – an acronym for Attack/Collect-Defend/Collect. This is how it works.

A reporter or columnist is asked by a politician or a businessman to write a scathing article about a political or commercial rival. That’s the Attack on which the journalist will Collect. In turn, the rival will commission a journalist, usually from a different publication, to write an article refuting the claims of the first article. That’s the Defend on which the journalist will also Collect. Sometimes the Defend client will pay another journalist on another publication to do an Attack piece on whoever commissioned the Attack piece on him.

But AC-DC practitioners don’t just sit around waiting for such work, they also generate their own clients. One such ploy is to write a smear piece about a corporation (or a member of its C-Suite) or a politician, and then approach the subject of the story with the copy. The journalist might say something to the effect that he felt duty bound to give the subject of the article the opportunity to read it prior to “publication”. Or, he felt he needed to warn him that the story was going to be released. He might even go so far as say that he or a colleague had been commissioned or instructed to write the story, though for “professional reasons,” he would be unable to name his client. That then sets the scene for a simple negotiation: how much would it cost not to print the story?

Caveat lector. Local media reports can be inaccurate. For one thing, news verification is often treated as an optional extra; it’s not required – the Disney story (see here) is a graphic example of that. Elsewhere, the rumour mill, gossip, hearsay, the dream factory and conspiracies theories can often be traced as the sources of news articles.