Duterte and the media

Regardless of whether they voted for him or not, many Filipinos wish the incoming President, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, success as he prepares to assume the nation’s highest office.  His victory in the recent polls, it has been said, signifies the voters’ disenchantment with the status quo and their desire for urgent change.

Duterte knows what is expected of him. He should be given a chance to do his work with the least distraction. But the media should always be there to watch him, and not be afraid to criticize him whenever the need arises.

As a candidate, he struck a familiar chord when he pledged willfulness and strong leadership in protecting the people against criminality, drugs, corruption, and inefficient public service.  The media found his simple message powerful.  What gave it greater resonance, however, was the inimitable style in which it was delivered.  The invective, profanity, and obscenity that laced Duterte’s rambling speeches dramatically captured the resentments of an aggrieved public. This earned for him a stunning media presence that other politicians could only dream about. He doesn’t need this now.

After his landslide victory over the ruling party’s standard-bearer, nearly every member of the political class pledged support for the Duterte presidency.  That’s a strong signal for him to claim a mandate to set new priorities for government. When he formally assumes office at the end of the month, the new President is expected to present a more thoughtful program of action than what could be gleaned from his campaign speeches and interviews.

In the meantime, the public cannot be blamed for wanting to take a closer look at the man, who, against all odds, has won the presidency. Beyond the coarse language and the down-to-earth attitude associated with him, the media are keen to define him more sharply both as a person and as the future president of this country.

Interestingly, between receiving well-wishers, position seekers, and diplomats, the incoming President has made himself available to the inquisitive media quite a few times.  These encounters—billed as “press briefings”—were originally meant to inform the media about the individuals being recruited into the Duterte administration.  They have turned out to be much more than that.

In unstructured monologues punctuated by a freewheeling Q&A, Duterte has exposed more of his private self, of his temperament, of his habits—indeed, of who he is—than may be considered prudent for an elected president. The candor and bluntness may be refreshing, but, if this routine baring of souls is going to be the norm at press briefings, the Office of the President can expect to spend more time reinterpreting the President’s actions and off-the-cuff statements than discussing pressing matters of state.

Duterte is no doubt an interesting and colorful person.  In front of the crowds during the campaign period, his unadorned persona formed a big part of his appeal.  They laughed with him when he mocked his rivals; they reveled in the profanity he freely spewed against revered figures and institutions.

Would this demeanor work the same magic in the larger national and global stage?  It’s hard to tell.  But the risks of being misinterpreted, of unintentionally triggering a crisis, of unnecessarily creating enemies, of being distracted from more urgent concerns, are multiplied several times when the one talking happens to be the head of state.

The beauty of democracy, says David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge, lies in the fact that democratic governments can change course when they make mistakes. “The politics of restraint has proved good at correcting for the most serious errors of judgment that politicians can make…. Autocratic regimes, which are often better at taking snap decisions, are worse at spotting when those decisions are the wrong ones.”

The restraint that Runciman refers to is built into the system, not in one individual’s capacity for self-control.  In a democracy, a president listens to his party, his Cabinet, and, through the media, the public in general.  But, more than this, he allows himself to be circumscribed in his speech and in his actions by the traditions of the office he occupies.  He may not personally care much about the conventions and rituals of the office, but he is sworn to care for what it represents.

I am sure many of Duterte’s friends, allies, and supporters—people who genuinely care for him and worked hard to get him elected—have advised him to be more circumspect and guarded in his statements and behavior before the media.  But, I imagine how hard it is to protect someone who recoils from being admonished and feels diminished by any attempt to change him.

For no other reason than because he needs more time to sit down with his interesting Cabinet designates, organize them into a functioning team, and, with them, put together a coherent policy agenda, the incoming President might do well to avoid those stream-of-consciousness briefings where he makes impulsive statements that require yet another briefing to explain.

I think Duterte is aware of the function of the news media in a democracy. It is to watch government. In the performance of that function, they will reserve a special eye for the unexpected, the extraordinary, the bizarre, or controversial.  In the process, they may sometimes bait their subject to say more than what he’s prepared to say. They are not picking on anyone when they do this. It’s just the way newsgathering is structured.

The media are not President-elect Duterte’s enemy. There is no point in antagonizing them by wishing the death or rationalizing the murder of their most corrupt practitioners.

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