POSTSCRIPT / July 3, 2001 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Why SC ban on TV coverage won’t work

IN our last Postscript, we started to say something about the limitations of the press in giving the public a complete and truthful account of public affairs.

In reporting court trials, a newspaperman has to tell the story in three to thirty paragraphs, depending on the complexity and significance of the case. And he has to write his piece under pressure of deadline, among other problems.

With these constraints, not to mention other limitations inherent in the reporter and the working conditions, it is impossible for him to faithfully capture the moment and communicate the truth to his readers.

* * *

FOR focus, let’s limit our discussion to the coverage of a court case, such as the coming trial before the Sandiganbayan of former President Erap Estrada.

The Supreme Court has banned television coverage of the historic trial. What the majority in the tribunal wants in effect is for journalists to sit with the crowd, take notes, then come out after the trial to write their respective accounts of what happened.

Your Honors, that simply will not work.

Under the circumstances prescribed, it is impossible for the best writer in town, or even an imported Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, to produce a complete, truthful and objective report of the trial.

We challenge Justice Jose Vitug (who wrote the SC decision) or any of the honorable justices of the Supreme Court to try covering the trial in that restricted work environment and prove that it can be done.

* * *

IN the course of his coverage, a reporter has to listen, observe, take notes, ask questions, et cetera, then sit down to hurriedly compose his own brief account — actually a compendium of his limited recollection and impressions of the event.

The result is invariably an incomplete and very subjective story that offers to the unsuspecting reader just one of a thousand possible accounts of what actually transpired in the courtroom.

Everyday, the reader is fed similarly incomplete, subjective, sometimes slanted stories about the trial because of the internal and external limitations of the writer. (Internal handicaps include such things as lack of preparation and understanding. External constraints include the situation in the courtroom, pressure of deadline and the meddling of pressure groups.)

* * *

SUCH inadequacies of the press are present whether the reporter is covering a court trial, a three-alarm fire, a wedding, or is simply rewriting a press release.

So why should we blame the Supreme Court for the handicaps of the court reporter, you might ask.

You see, the Supreme Court is in a unique position to do something positive about these factors working against good reportage. But it chose not to break away from its traditional moorings and give the public the media accounts it deserves.

It is not everything, but television will save the day not only for media but also for the cause of justice. It will afford everybody outside the courtroom a better perception of what happened inside.

* * *

OUT of kilometric testimonies, a reporter can pick up only a few paragraphs for use in his story that purports to report with objectivity what transpired that day. To the writer, it is mission impossible.

The mere fact that the reporter chooses only a small part of the whole and adds a little color to make his piece more engaging already makes his story very subjective, not objective, since he would be exercising value judgments.

Suppose the newspaper prints verbatim the full stenographic notes (assuming it can do that Herculean job). Will that solve the problem of subjectivity? No, not even that will solve it.

You see, aside from the oral testimonies and motions to and fro, plus the remarks and rulings of the judges, there are other things like the demeanor of witnesses.

* * *

WHEN a witness says “No, Your Honor,” it’s not just a “No.” We have to watch for the shifty eyes, the reddening of the cheeks, unusual sweating, clasping and unclasping of the hands, the wry smile, and a million other details that tell an entire world about the “No” of the witness.

Even judges, if we are to go by the usual layout of court salas, are often unable to capture or interpret the demeanor of witnesses because the latter are usually facing the crowd and not the judge. Or even if they were facing the judge, the magistrate may be several feet away.

This is just a fraction of the forbidding ambience in the Sandiganbayan under which the Supreme Court wants the press to capture and relate the day’s trial.

Under the circumstances, the waiting public is short-changed.

* * *

WE beg the court’s understanding when we say that in this day and age, the people want to share (or check?) the perspective of the tribunal in judging a case as important as this one. This the people cannot do if they rely solely on the hurried, incomplete accounts in media.

Television is not the final solution to this problem. But it can help in no small way in our effort to let the rest of the world outside the courtroom know exactly what happened.

We have offered as compromise to a blanket no-TV-coverage rule a fixed three-camera operation. One TV camera will be focused on the witness stand, a second camera on the panel of justices, and a third provides a wide-angle shot of the audience.

All three TV cameras will be pre-set and unmoving, and no technician will touch them during the trial. They will objectively record (and broadcast?) whatever comes within range.

We beg the tribunal to consider this.

* * *

ANOTHER round of price headaches can be expected to bedevil the Arroyo administration with the latest increase in the price of gasoline and other oil-based fuels.

With destabilization all around and the conspiracy of unfavorable market forces, we see no immediate relief from the economic squeeze that is making life difficult for the poor. Worse, there are no signs of deliverance until the end of the year.

The economy will make or unmake President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. It will also decide if she should seek a fresh mandate in 2004.

* * *

BUT bad times all the way to 2004 should not faze GMA. In the first place, it’s not all her fault if the economy slackens despite her efforts to perk it up. In the second place, our people have gotten used to harsh realities.

We believe that the people would understand — provided (1) the situation is explained to them and (2) they see that everybody, from the President down to the poorest of the poor, is bearing the same cross.

What riles people, what drives them seething mad, is when they see a privileged few shamelessly raking it in while the rest of us are wallowing in want.

* * *

IN this context, GMA’s cracking down on fattened executives of government corporations is a move in the right direction. What we want to see right away are the perks and privileges, if not the bloated basic salaries, of these executives actually tumbling down.

The crackdown is a popular move that should be pursued relentlessly. It should be deepened and widened to include directors and consultants of government-controlled firms.

We want to see, finally, government officials gladly complying with the constitutional admonition that they “lead modest lives” (Section 1, Article XI).

* * *

ASIDE from ostentatious living, among the more visible trappings of undeserved privilege of government officials are the luxury cars that zip around town bearing “public servants.”

The President’s order for officials to give up their luxury vans should be complemented immediately by the strict enforcement of the “trip ticket” system for government vehicles and other auditing rules governing their use.

The rules are already there. All that’s needed is no-nonsense enforcement.

* * *

ONE suggestion of ours is to paint “FOR OFFICE USE ONLY” (not “For Official Use Only”) prominently on both sides of all government vehicles, especially those with red plates, with the name of the office or agency under it.

Note that we’re for changing “official” to “office.” With the rampant abuse of government vehicles, some people have actually begun to interpret “For Official Use” to mean “for the use of officials.”

The cars of heads of agencies and government-controlled corporations should be included in the restrictive marking. The only exception could be vehicles used exclusively for undercover security operations.

* * *

WE’RE not suggesting it, but imagine the impact down the line if no less than the Mercedes of the President is marked “For Office Use Only.” With that, no kapalmuks would have the temerity to ask for exception.

Such a marking is no trivial matter. To many officials flaunting privilege, riding a marked “office” car is a blow to their ego and that of their family members.

It is also a reassurance to the rest of our countrymen reeling from the bad times that a reformed officialdom is sharing in the burden.

Hopefully, such marking would be a deterrent to office vehicles being used for marketing, nightclubbing, weekend excursions, et cetera. Those who refuse to be deterred could be administratively charged.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 3, 2001)

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