Anti-Social Media: Primae donnae at a press conference

Here’s a story from the sidelines that our friends at Spinbusters may have missed: Reportorial feathers were ruffled at a press conference by Budget Secretary Florencio Abad last Thursday because reporters on the Finance beat wanted first crack at the secretary.

He had been abroad and this was the first time beat reporters would get to ask him about the Disbursement Acceleration Program, a stimulus package that some have taken to lumping together with pork barrel funds allegedly used for political leverage.

The program, and the implied political patronage in its use, has been in the news lately and at least one network sent crews to cover the press conference too.

Because Finance reporters had requested and set up the conference with Abad, they wanted the opportunity to ask their questions first. Questions about DAP and other issues that Finance reporters keep track of.

Credit ratings body Moody’s Investors Services had also announced that day that it had upgraded the Philippines to investment grade, so they probably also had questions about how that would affect spending.

Questions that would likely be drowned out and ignored in a nationally televised press conference that would focus on how the DAP was allegedly used to bribe senators during the impeachment trial of ex-chief justice Renato Corona.*

They initially wanted to go first but that request soon turned into a demand to hold a separate briefing, that demand soon degenerating into a passive-aggressive tussle on Twitter.

The boss of a network website was tweeting late into Thursday night that the Finance reporters were unprofessional brats, saying the story was in the public interest and that they had no right to prevent TV crews from covering the event.

That is true, of course. A journalist’s first loyalty is to the public and no journalist has a right to tell another not to cover something. Public interest and all that.

One has to wonder, though, whether allowing live TV coverage of a press conference on a complex issue is actually in the best interest of the public.

There’s a reason media outfits have beats. Lack of office space, and a need for people relatively well versed on a topic and on the workings of the institution they are covering.

Finance beat reporter

We like to think that journalists can be sent to cover anything and get a working understanding of an issue within minutes of the event.

This is generally true, but a working knowledge of an issue is nothing against the institutional knowledge of a journalist who has spent months getting to know a beat.

Already, the discourse on the pork barrel scam has shifted from indicting lawmakers accused of diverting discretionary development funds into fake non-governmental NGOs to a general condemnation of discretionary funding and vague allegations of corruption within the Aquino administration.

Forgotten in the discussion of the DAP, this supposedly secret funding loophole used to buy a guilty verdict from the Senate, is that it was announced (to the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines, even) in 2011.

Also forgotten is that the Department of Budget and Management released a long list of projects that the DAP would fund and the guidelines governing that funding. Also ignored is how no money actually went to senators since the projects were paid for directly.

Constitutional experts (and non-experts) have said the realignment of funds for the DAP (a source says money was pulled out of problematic projects that would not have gotten funding anyway and put into more feasible ones) may have been illegal. That’s certainly something to look at, but probably through the lens of people who actually take time to study the national budget and attend budget briefings even when TV crews aren’t around.

*Senator Jinggoy Estrada, accused of plunder in the P10-billion pork barrel fund scam, hinted at a P50-million incentive given months after the impeachment trial. It was not a bribe, he said, and he voted to convict Corona for failing to accurately declare his assets based on evidence. But whatever.

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