Government Media News Analysis

Circus of the absurd

Harry Roque, newly appointed Presidential Spokesperson

Lawyer/legislator, Harry Roque (photo), has got off to a very rocky start as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s official spokesperson. Less than two weeks into the job, he finds himself at the centre of a raging media storm that’s succeeded in further polarising the country’s mainstream and social media.

He was attempting to put his stamp on the office by establishing his authority; day one – a new broom that was going to sweep clean. But all that backfired and his authority has been left looking very shaky indeed. We’re not going to get into the minutiae of this debacle, but briefly here are the circumstances that created it.

Roque, awaiting to take up his appointment was interviewed by Presidential Communications Assistant Secretary and mega pro-Duterte blogger, Margaux “Mocha” Uson. In that interview, posted on Uson’s Facebook page, he said this: “If, in the past, you [the mainstream media] were able to throw stones without anyone hitting back, be warned that if you throw stones, I won’t just throw stones but hollow blocks”. Hollow blocks being the large, heavy concrete blocks used in Philippine house construction.

This was his attempt to reassure the president’s loyal online supporters that he would use his position to fully support the president from criticism by the mainstream press.

What ensued, however, was a flurry of self-righteous outrage from sections of the mainstream media – not least from online-only news and opinion website, Rappler, which currently enjoys mainstream-media accreditation of the Malacañang Press Corp. – and a humourless National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP).

All were taking themselves extremely seriously and building what amounted to little more than a storm in a teacup to something bordering on a human-rights violation. To state the obvious, if these sections of the Philippine media are so sensitive, they’re in the wrong job.

Look at this statement from the NUJP, protesting a throwaway remark made by super-blogger and Duterte supporter, RJ Nieto, better known as Thinking Pinoy. He’d suggested Roque hurl a hollow block at Rappler ‘princess’, Pia Rañada who seems to thrive on being the subject of media rows. She’d insinuated herself into the story after tossing a couple of lightweight rocks at Roque.

Here’s what the NUJP said: “There is no other way to see it but this: RJ Nieto encouraged a senior government official on air to throw ‘hollow blocks’ against a journalist, thereby threatening her, thereby possibly committing a crime”.

A crime? What crime? Are they seriously suggesting that Nieto meant that actual slabs of concrete should be slung at a member of the media? That he was inciting violence against her person? Or are they suggesting that Nieto’s remark could cause Ms Rañada to succumb to some form of post-traumatic stress disorder? Again, if they’re so thin skinned what are they doing in this business?

It’s really time to get out of the sandbox and behave like adult news men and women. None of this has anything to do with journalism – it belongs in a circus of the absurd. Roque was speaking figuratively, in the same way he was speaking figuratively when he referred to the stones being thrown at the president. Of course, the NUJP must know that – if it doesn’t it’s got even bigger problems.

So, in effect, they’re allowing the union to be used to threaten a Philippine citizen who’s doing nothing more than exercising his right to the constitutionally enshrined freedom of expression. That’s as unethical as the media taking bribes – which still goes on in the Philippines, though the NUJP seems to stay well away from dealing with that issue. Corruption in the media – evidently, as far as the Philippine media themselves are concerned – doesn’t warrant the same scrutiny as corruption anywhere else.

Certainly, Roque didn’t do himself or his office any favours by his handling of this row, but the likes of Rañada and the NUJP look even more pathetic with their protestations. There are some very large issues going on right now concerning the Philippines and the region. And this is not one of them.

It would have been better if the matter had been left there; unfortunately, however, it wasn’t. Roque then went into appeasement mode. Frantically backtracking on his early hollow-blocks line, he said this to pro-Duterte bloggers: “To my DDS [Diehard Duterte Supporters] friends; please leave Pia Rañada alone. Let us not throw anything at legitimate journalists. Let’s give them, particularly the critical ones, hot pandesal [bread rolls] instead”.

Quite what he means by the phrase “legitimate journalists” is hard to know – unless he regards the non-mainstream media as ‘illegitimate’ in some way – a bastard press perhaps. But they’re not; their voice is certainly every bit as legitimate as those working on the editorial floor of Rappler, for example.

We’re not sure what qualifies as journalistic illegitimacy, anymore than we understand what qualifies as journalistic legitimacy in the case of much of the Philippines’ biased press. If it’s simply the mainstream’s accreditation to the Malacañang Press Corp. that legitimises it in Roque’s view, then that’s an extremely narrow definition.

The phrase seems to be extremely ill chosen and it would be better if he either explained it or retracted it. What the use of that phrase does do, however, is to show that Rogue is out of his depth in his understanding of the dynamics of a free press.

But then he doubled down saying he would mentor “Mocha” Uson on the importance of a free and critical press. “I will forever consider individuals as under my tutelage on important matters so I hope [Assistant Secretary] Mocha will accept being a student of the spokesperson,” he said.

So suddenly Roque was now seeking to tamper down bloggers’ defence of Duterte by protecting Duterte’s critics against criticism from them. On top of that, he was proposing giving lessons on journalistic etiquette to one of the president’s most ardent supporters. To Nieto all that was like a red rag to a bull and he responded by calling for Roque to resign.

But, in fact, Nieto is right. It’s not the Presidential Spokesperson’s job to referee disputes between mainstream journalists and online bloggers. And, as the president’s appointee, it’s not his job to play the president’s supporters off against his critics; or visa versa.

Roque, it seems, had hoped to establish an entente cordiale; some kind of perfect world in which all media could operate side by side with minimal misunderstanding and conflict. He sought to be the architect of a new, more inclusive media environment – one in which disparate agendas could be equally accommodated.

He was wasting his time, and he should have known it. Both sides in this conflict have their own political programme – and they’re not going to change, irrespective of who’s speaking for the president at the podium.

Theory and practice are two very different masters; and what Roque succeeded in doing when he U-turned was to undermine the authority of his office by breaking two classic rules – one the result of the other. First, he wanted to be a “friend” of the mainstream media – particularly the Malacañang press corp. He wanted them to like him.

But that’s not part of his job – and the plain fact is, they’re not there to be his friend either. He’s Duterte’s spokesman – a virtual representation of the president’s office. He’s not in a popularity contest and he doesn’t need the press to like him. What he needs is for them to respect him; nothing more.

His role is to communicate the president’s thinking on issues; in the president’s absence, to announce presidential directives; to collect and present information and clarify for the press any issues arising which they deem are in the public interest.

Along with the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) – the other part of the Presidential Communications Group – the Presidential Spokesperson’s main purpose is to brief the media on the latest developments within the Executive Branch of government. At press briefings, he’s also there to answer the media’s questions.

First and foremost, though, his job is to bring the media up to date on what’s happening in the administration – this concerns developments in both domestic and foreign affairs; everything from the president’s travel schedule to policy shifts.

As well as being the media’s point man for governmental matters, the spokesperson is also a face of the administration. In other words, his job is to present the government’s message. He speaks for the government – more specifically for the president. It’s quite simple; it’s all in the job title.

And so what he doesn’t do is act like some kind of arbiter between the mainstream and social media. He has to be well above their squabbles. He has to be more aloof, reserved – and certainly more professional. Their disagreements are none of his concern. He’s not there to settle disputes and he should play no part in them. Ultimately, that would be the job of the PCOO.

Thus, by getting involved, Roque broke the other classic rule – one all journalists, let alone presidential spokespersons should avoid. He allowed himself to become the story. But while reporters can get away with that in an era that prizes journalistic celebrity above journalistic substance and integrity, those charged with communicating the president’s message cannot.

Harry Roque is an extremely capable lawyer and a very erudite speaker.  A professor of constitutional law and international law, he’s also made his mark on Congress – not least recently by the successful impeachment complain he drove against Andres Bautista, the former chairman of the Commission on Elections.

But standing before the press corps is very different to speaking in the House of Representative or in a court room. There are similarities, of course, but it’s a different audience and it requires different treatment.

Though you could argue the same about Congress, the press can be pedantic and petty; they need taking seriously where their enquiry is serious and fending off and courteously dismissing when their enquiry is trivial or mischievous. Tact is useful; an authoritative voice is essential. There can be moments of levity, but this post represents the president of the country – it requires dignity. And it requires distance.

Press briefings on serious matters of state aren’t meant to be glee-club gatherings for cracking jokes and making new pals. They’re about getting the message across to the media which – hopefully – will understand it sufficiently to communicate it to a national audience.

So where does this embarrassing row stand now. Well, clearly RJ Nieto won’t be charged with any crime. Meanwhile his call for Roque to step down is also unlikely to be effective.

However, what might gain some traction is a request sent by “Mocha” Uson to PCOO Secretary, Martin Andanar, for Rappler to be removed from the Malacañang Press Corp., and reclassified as social media. She points out in her memo that Rappler is purely an online publication without any print or broadcasting counterpart. Should that happen, no doubt the NUJP would want to have its say – though, of course, this matter is well outside its terms of reference.

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