IF, as Paddy Chayefsky puts it, television is democracy at its ugliest, then politics depicted by mass media and as allowed by democracy is most reprehensible day in and day out.
We listen to the news each day. We read them in newspapers and on social media. There is, however, the actual hearings shown online where we witness how the politicians act out their positions. We see them talking, gesturing. We become privy to the smirks and twitches their mouths bring to their face.
No stammering is left unnoticed; no lapses in grammar escapes the listener. Unlike the press releases or online posting where editing creates magic, the camera can be unforgiving.
For the past weeks, we have been tracking two important communication threads: one involves the so-called confidential funds in the hands of certain government officials; the other is the crisis the police have brought to what could have been a regular discussion about peace, law and order.
The confidential funds have been memed already, with some social critics playing with the word “confidence” in the concept itself. In the hands of a political raconteur, the idea that money as our source of confidence is turned into a hilarious idea. Is this akin to James Scott’s “everyday form of resistance,” a kind of script ordinary people employ, helpless in the face of oppressive structures? Does humor save the day for many of us?
Let us invoke an old name, Marshall McLuhan. In the 1970s, he was popular and even up to now, his theorizing is recognized as a cornerstone of present-day media studies. He is particular about message and image. For him, “politics will eventually be replaced by imagery. The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favor of his image because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be.”
Now, these images are not seen in the news we read or hear. We see them by way of videos or live coverages streamed. And the images are disturbing.
First on the list is the coverage of the confidential fund. Gridlock!
You must have patience for parliamentary procedures and how they are misunderstood. Or could it be this age-old problem that, for all our claims, to be bilingual in English and Filipino, we are not generally fluent in both. But our legislators insist and persist in talking in English, in grating legalese.
Who can forget this young Sandro Marcos, youthfully fresh but politically savvy (greatly tutored, some would say) as he terminates the deliberation on the budget hearing for the Office of Vice President. Did he say, “I move to terminate the budget of the Office of the Vice President?” in a rush to perform the act. In the video, presiding officer Maria Carmen Zamora had barely finished thanking the OVP for the presentation, when the words of Marcos were overheard, inserted with confidence in the proceeding. This was, according to Marcos, following the long-standing tradition of giving the Office of the Vice President parliamentary courtesy. This meant no question asked. Until the ACT representative, France Castro raised her voice to explain her dissenting vote. But Zamora, looking to the right, and a flurry of gestures around her creating a canvas of signs and anxiety, began to speak. One saw another woman sidling to Zamora, and Rep. Castro talking of a manifestation. The house was then divided, followed by a vote. All this time, the camera was steady with a long shot—men and women smiling.
Castro continued to talk but Zamora, her bodily posture swiveling to right and then to left, had picked up the gavel: it killed the discussion. Whereupon, the camera panned to the Vice President Sara Duterte who was seen standing and leaving the table. Across the table, Marcos and Zamora were huddling with other people.
The news would come out later: the deliberation was over in 20 minutes with Duterte not being asked even if Castro was quoted as saying the Vice President was ready to explain.
A different situation would take place in the Senate. Senator Risa Hontiveros asked the Vice President a simple question: What are the primary mandates of the Office of the Vice President? To this, Duterte quickly retorted: USec (Undersecretary) Lopez would answer the question. This was bluntly cut by Hontiveros, explaining the question was basic and it should be the Vice President who should answer. The camera caught the side of Duterte, a faint smile flashing across her face.
The covering journalists described the questioning as grilling but watch again the video (it is all over the internet) and you will realize how cool and gentle Hontiveros was. Duterte was calm herself, looking down at what we presume to be notes. To her side, the USec continued to sort of talk, her mouth moving.
After the deliberations, we would see these encounters played out in a different arena—a presscon where Vice President Duterte would describe Hontiveros as amusing “the nation with her flair for drama.” A photo that accompanies this news shows a more combative Vice President, her hands in a declamatory position. Hontiveros would respond dressed in black, a necklace with a tiny crucifix visible around her neck with a line cinematic, quotable: “Hindi kayo special” (You are not special) to the Vice President. She continued, explaining, “If you are so confident about those confidential funds, then defend them (subtly pausing here) publicly.” Hontiveros would have more to say but she has picked her stronger words already.
There are more of Hontiveros online. Unforgettable is her appearance in the hearing of the Jemboy Baltazar, the boy who was killed by six policemen. Facing the perpetrators, she asked one question: “Ano ang akala niyo sa mga mamamayan, pang target practice?” The camera pans and shows all the policemen, their heads bowed down even as we remained unbelieving at how this land has lost its grip on what is right, just and sane.