What is the viability of a ‘Philippine Broadcasting Corporation’?

There has been suggestions and speculations on what could potentially fill ABS-CBN’s national television and radio frequencies, after it was ordered to cease operations on the 5th of May 2020. One of them is the creation of a publicly owned broadcaster comparable to that of the United Kingdom’s BBC.

First off, there shouldn’t be a void in the Philippine media industry right now in the first place. The fact that the biggest broadcaster in the country was shut down through the exploitation of political pressures and influences should not be tolerated nor accepted; if anything, defiance should be our response. I’ve already articulated my thoughts and feelings about this in this post: #DefendPressFreedom

To shut down one of the major broadcasters in the country is to suppress its press freedom. 

The media speaks truth to power and challenges complacency in our government and institutions. In essence, it makes sure that power is never without responsibility. 

The law is being weaponised to shut down criticisms; political capital is being exploited to stop people from pointing out injustices and uncomfortable facts. This is state power bearing down not only on what it deems unsympathetic journalism but also on freedom of expression. This is democratic deficit in action.

In terms of the creation of a Philippine Broadcasting Corporation or PBC, I would like to point out that we already have the People Television Network (PTV), Philippine Broadcasting Service (PBS), and the Intercontinental Broadcasting Corporation (IBC). Although, of course, unlike the BBC which is a statutory corporation and is operationally independent from government interventions, these media arms are all attached agencies of the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO). Nonetheless, it cannot be dismissed that these organisations can evolve or be developed into a model similar to that of the BBC.

This brings us to the conception of The Beeb. According to Seaton (2010), there are two accounts of the origins of the BBC. The first is that the Corporation was the achievement of Sir John Reith. The second is that its emergence was purely accidental. The problem with both is they disregard the political and sociological changes in the world outside of broadcasting. BBC owed its existence to the scarcity of airwaves during the 1920s. While it was turned into his personal crusade by Reith, it developed out of the necessity and demand for a “Public Commission operating in the National Interest.” Furthermore, it was fortified as a public service utility through its importance during the First World War. There are always anxieties that a media service could become an apparatus of government propaganda. Hence, the BBC, as we know it today, was founded on the rejection of politics as well as market forces. Its model was conceptualised wherein private control and direct state management are both unsuitable; so, it has no capitalist inheritance nor a government agenda to weigh it down. This is not to say that the BBC do not have its share of scandals and problems in its history (it was, and still is, run by lords and barons for goodness’ sake), but that’s a completely different can of worms, which would take us away from this subject entirely. So, I digress.

The Beveridge Report of 1947 highlighted the four scandals of monopoly that Auntie B then enjoyed: bureaucracy, complacency, favouritism, and inefficiency. Monopoly either by a public or private institution can be problematic. Hence, many argue that the entry of commercial television in Britain during the 1950s was a cultural liberator – a commercial competition changed the BBC forcing it to consider public wants more seriously. The point is there has to be a healthy competition across the industry. Arguably, media institutions of any business model, even the commercial ones, still strives in providing independent, objective and factual journalism because the economic viability of any news organisations are inherently dependent on public trust. In the Philippines, we already have issues over narrow media ownerships to only a very few elites, which often raise concerns over the concentration of power. Media pluralism is important in bringing diverse views and ideas in the public sphere and it shouldn’t be reduced further.

We also have to acknowledge that even with the advent of recent problems, changes and watersheds, the British media remains distinctive in comparison to other countries’. With the exception of partisan newspapers, the media in Britain is still less biased than American press. It is very much less corrupted than the Italian press. Religion plays less part in it than in Holland. And there are less radical press in the UK than in France. This shows that even though media and other factors of the society overlap with each other, it is not very excessive in Britain. The barriers between each of them stand strong and this also means that the British society maintains a somewhat harmonious balance. (I recognise that this might need some serious new research and reassessment after the whole of Brexit) These conditions also contributes for the continuous existence of a publicly owned broadcaster, aside from BBC’s unwavering image as a world leading authority in broadcasting and journalism, which justifies the collection of licence fee from its viewers.

Now, the real core of the issue here is: Does the current political landscape of the Philippines allows for the viability of a PBC?

A publicly owned broadcaster funded by tax payers’ money is a great concept as it would allow wider investments for local and regional arms and coverage in serving the whole nation, because considerations of profits would not restrict it to the populous urban areas. The socio-cultural significance would be immense to a very balkanised Philippines due to its geographical and ethnological make-up. This kind of service would ideally weave a common and equal dissemination of information by bringing issues into and from the grassroots as well as the remote areas – giving more disadvantaged minorities an opportunity to be heard in order to establish a stronger cohesion among Filipinos.

But with the rise of populism in the country, we have experienced an erosion of trust in our institutions. With Duterte’s brand of populism and the social media support that fortifies his popularism, we are now seeing a change in the dynamics in the country where the masses are turning against the Fourth Estate, claiming bias and lack of objectivity, instead of standing with it as they did in the past – a manifestation of an illiberal rupture. (Thompson, 2016) We have seen a similar rise of populism and erosion of trust in Britain. In fact, even the BBC is getting an increasing amount of accusations of bias from the public since the 2016 EU referendum. As recent as February 2020, there were reports that Downing Street plans to abolish the licence fee as well.

This is problematic for any form of media institution because as the government gets more powerful, the press becomes a more effective opposition than the opposition. Let’s not forget that democracy is also dependent on independent news coverage. The media promotes democracy by engaging the public to participate in either a national or local level, through coverage of government-decision making, highlighting social issues and holding businesses and institutions to account.

We are experiencing democratic deficit in action through the lack of transparency, accountability and consistency in our current government – legitimised by the manipulation of public perception regarding the state of news coverage in the country. And these are the very conditions that allowed for our top broadcasting organisation to be shut down in the first place.

As it is in any other countries, the media has a tripartite role in the Philippine society. It has vital influence in the political, economic and socio-cultural spectrum of the country. However, the complex relationships between the media and the society are also where tensions and problems root from.

The media’s political role includes disseminating information relevant to the public interest; it has the responsibility to reflect public opinion; and it acts as a watchdog of the government. Maslog (2000) states that the Philippine press is privately owned and is independent of government control. The same goes for broadcast television and radio. Nonetheless, there exists such a high political parallelism which decreases the credibility of journalism in the country. Politicians still owns media organisations or have either close blood or influential ties with the media owners. This creates a messy web of entanglement between our social institutions. Should close relationships exist between the government and the media? They probably best not. Can it be avoided in the Philippines where the majority of business owners and politicians are from dynasties of very few and powerful families? That would be difficult, especially because curried political favours are widespread. Politicians can also influence the investment allocation of these closely tied corporations to mobilise indirect control over media organisations. All of these make the political value and influence of a media organisation more imperative in their survival and profitability, even if it can sacrifice the credibility of journalism within the media system.

Moreover, Pineda-Ofreneo (198.) asserts the existence of ‘envelopmental journalism’ due to low wages of journalists. The susceptibility of journalists and the presence of political PRs – otherwise known as ‘spin doctors’ or ‘media handlers’ – propagate a corruption in which journalists can be bribed into writing certain stories. Who is to say that a public body would not suffer from similar pressures?

The normative media theories apply to Philippine journalism as well. The Philippines experienced the authoritarian kind of control when President Marcos declared martial law in 1972. The government recognised that journalism poses a threat in overturning the government and did everything to muzzle freedom of expression in the country through both legal and illegal types of control. Since then, even after the martial law was lifted, there’s been a constant animosity between journalists and the government.

Philippines prides itself as a democratic country so one would think that it has a free press. However, this has become very difficult with the proliferation of threats to journalists. Perhaps the biggest problem in this country is the widespread unethical and gravest form of ‘media regulation’ which involves the slaughters and killings of journalists as a form of control. The Maguindanao Massacre in 2009, – dubbed by the Committee to Protect Journalists as “the single deadliest event for journalists in history” – wherein 32 journalists were killed, highlights this crisis in the country’s journalism industry. On the same day that the NTC issued the cease and desist order for ABS-CBN, a radio reporter was shot in Dumaguete City – he was the third journalist to be killed in Dumaguete since 2018. The National Union of Journalist of the Philippines (NUJP) puts the number of journalists killed in the Philippines since 1986 at 186. The fact that the Philippines is a media-rich country and that it has a strong lineage of press freedom is rendered meaningless in the face of injustice and violence that can usher journalists to their graves. It is the reign of impunity in the country, immense corruption; slow judicial system; and incessant abuse of power that allow this kind of atrocity. Unless the government addresses these issues, the killings would continue. Moreover, this kind of ‘regulation’ restricts media freedom as it encourages a culture of self-censorship among journalists; it also delays the establishment of official policies that would both ensure freedom and also regulate an accountable media.

Jamias (1999) identifies, at least five major factors that influence the behaviour and performance of the media. They are the press freedom, media laws and regulations, editorial policies, codes of ethics and conducts and media ownership. The principal predicament is the large power disparity that exists in the country and that the power over these five factors lies in the concentrated elite of the population. The major challenge is to persist in defending and improving freedom of expression despite an ownership system that sustains a conflict between personal and public interests and a political structure of declining democracy.

The idea of a publicly owned and independent PBC is noble in its conception. I love it, especially because it is hopeful. Nevertheless, I do think that it is also naive despite its merits.

First published here:
What is the viability of a ‘Philippine Broadcasting Corporation’? | Facebook Note


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