Soon after Hubert Webb was tagged a suspect in the Vizconde killings, the media became interested in his performance at school. Was he average or outstanding? Did he finish or did he drop out? What kind of schools did he attend?
The answers to these questions were diligently sought almost as if his guilt or innocence depended on them. His co-accused underwent much the same background check. One TV news report strung together footage of interviews with the former teachers of these young men. Again the same questions were asked in the same urgent tone: were they good, average or bad students? What do you remember about them? Were they regular boys or recalcitrant goons?
I don’t know if this is investigative journalism. I am aware however that what is being done here is the reconstruction of moral careers. It is what lawyers do in court to establish or destroy the credibility of witnesses.
In a court trial, it is possible for lawyers to object to the presentation of information that has no visible relevance to the case being tried. In media, however, it is often too late to object. And there is little that can be done to erase an impression, especially if it happens to be based on fact.
Senator Freddie Webb is finding this out for himself in a rather painful way even if he is not the one being charged. A newspaper report recently revealed that with the exception of one son, the entire Webb family was allegedly on the payroll of the Senate at one time or other. Hubert himself, apparently, had been a public servant, a functionary in a senate committee.
The subtext here, of course, is that the Senator may have been guilty of nepotism. This piece of information provides the basis for all kinds of questions. For example, were these relatives actually doing work or were they “15-30” employees?
In court, a defense lawyer may be able to minimize the damage created by such information. For example, he may point out that it is not unusual or necessarily illegal for senators to appoint their family members to high-paying positions in their offices. Every other senator probably does it.
But to point this out to a skeptical public would not be of any use to the Webbs. No one is interested in the other senators at the moment. It is only Senator Webb’s personal reality that is under scrutiny, not the general truth of the Senate’s employment practices. That reality is now providing all the elements from which the moral career of the entire Webb family is being reconstructed in the light of the thesis that a son, Hubert Webb, is probably a social offender.
It is against this unexamined attitude that Webb lawyer Rene Saguisag desperately seeks to educate the public. He maintains that the court case is easy enough. He will win it, he says. It is the battle for public sympathy that the Webbs may lose.
His apprehension is understandable. There is a public out there that is fed up with police incompetence, a dysfunctional justice system, and smart lawyers retained by affluent clients. In the Vizconde case, the public has come out to say: enough!
But more importantly, the cultural ground from which the current public talk about the Vizconde killings springs contains sufficient raw material with which to weave a thousand cases against the likes of Hubert Webb and the seven others named by Jessica Alfaro.
In a highly unequal society like ours, public opinion tends to lean in favor of the perceived victims of power. The public gives to the weak the moral upper hand, as a way of balancing the political advantage of the powerful.
Accordingly, children of the new rich and the newly powerful are perceived to be typically spoiled, abusive and anti-social. Their parents are expected to shower them with expensive cars, clothes and money as a way of making up for their absence from their children’s lives. When the children get into trouble, such parents are seen as more concerned with covering up the mess than with reforming their children.
Investigative reports will soon be focusing on the quality of the family life of the rest of the accused in this case. And as surely as the sun will rise, they will be telling us — what can you expect from kids who never had the chance to enjoy an affirming family life? Almost all of them come from broken families.
This is the satisfaction of stereotypes. Our stereotype models of human biographies allow us to pass judgment ahead of the courts, and in total disregard of the rules of evidence. You cannot mount a legal defense in the arena of public discourse. You can only attempt a difficult moral defense, highlighting the moral strengths of a family, while drawing attention away from its failings.
That is probably why Rene Saguisag has found it important at this time to refer to Freddie Webb’s hitherto unnoticed role in the anti-dictatorship struggle. Such information may seem irrelevant to the case under discussion, but it is certainly an important part of the defense that the Webbs now feel compelled to wage in public.
There is enormous work ahead for their PR manager, if it is true they have hired one. Some commentators have already begun to ridicule Senator Webb’s record as an anti-Marcos activist. They say he is better remembered as a skillful player on the hard court during the dictatorship, than as an angry young man on the streets.
Reason tells us that all this should be irrelevant to Hubert’s guilt or innocence. The funny thing, however, is that in the final analysis, it may not be.
The public forms its opinion on the basis of the truths unearthed by media. But these truths are not equally reported. Some are more interesting or important than others. That’s how they become news. Most truths however pass unnoticed.
In the face of multiple truths, media decides which truths should be brought to public attention, and which truths ought to be ignored. Discernment spells the difference.
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