Column: Beyond black and white: Among Ed’s ‘first test’

Published on October 16, 2007

At the 2nd Inquirer briefing last week, anthropologist and Inquirer columnist Michael Tan argued that the secondary school setting should be considered an educational “ecotone” — that is to say (in layman’s language, cribbed from the dictionary) a transition area between two biological communities. His point, at least as this layman understood it: The tension between the different ecosystems can be responsible for leaps in evolution. In education reform, much attention has been placed on the basic and the tertiary levels. But we might just get more of the results we need if we devote more attention to what happens in high school.

* * *

I could not help but notice that Sen. Joker Arroyo’s rejoinder to the Inquirer story on the Senate’s Sept. 26 executive session was divided, like Gaul, into three parts. The first was solid and factual (narrating the sequence of events), the second watery and speculative (impugning the motives of the editors) and the third gaseous and deceptively ingenuous (taking the newspaper to task for publishing information “in the teeth of the declared confidentiality of the Senate proceedings”).

Perhaps the senator misunderstands the situation, but surely he is not suggesting that reporters confine themselves only to official versions of events. That would make the media an adjunct of the government. As then Associate Justice Reynato Puno wrote in his stirring dissent on the Jurado case a dozen years ago: “As agent of the people, the most important function of the press in a free society is to inform and it cannot inform if it is uninformed. We should be wary when the independent sources of information of the press dry up, for then the press will end up printing ‘praise’ releases and that is no way for the people to know the truth.”

If he is up to it, the famous human rights lawyer (definitely no stranger to this paper’s editors) may want to read an instructive post by Jaileen Jimeno on PCIJ’s pioneering blog. There, two former Senate reporters and an ex-senator discuss the long, leaky tradition of Senate executive sessions. “You cannot blame the journalist for pursuing the story,” Jimeno quotes Rene Saguisag as saying. “It’s enterprise.”

* * *

All this talk of confidential sources reminds me of what we can call the Law of the Disgruntled, and sends me back to my dusty copy of “The Kingdom and the Power,” Gay Talese’s anecdote-driven history of The New York Times. Scotty Reston, the columnist, earned a Pulitzer Prize for a series of behind-the-scenes stories on the founding of the United Nations. His insider knowledge riled the delegates drafting a blueprint of the UN, leading them to accuse each other of leaking the information. As it turned out, the crucial documents came from the Chinese delegation, the one party dissatisfied with the proceedings.

Reston’s lesson for enterprising journalists: “You should always look around for the guys who are unhappy.”

* * *

The Palace payola accepted and reported by Pampanga Gov. Ed Panlilio presents us with what educators would call a teaching moment. As I understand it, he received P500,000 in a bag from a Malacañang operative, as he was on his way to board his car. He hesitated, but eventually accepted the money. “I have reasons to believe that the money came from the public coffers since it was being handed by this man from Malacañang. Since that was public money and it belonged to the people, I decided to take it and use it in a beneficial way,” he said. He also immediately reported the incident.

The report has kicked up a storm of controversy, with no lack of advocates on either side of the moral divide. “Among Ed,” as the Catholic priest is known in Pampanga, said much of the feedback he himself received tended to be positive. The Inquirer’s follow-up story the other day, a round-up of reactions mainly from Pampanga, followed the same trend. The only one who urged that the money be returned to Malacañang posthaste was a career politician (in fact, one with ties to the President herself).

I welcome the controversy, for two reasons: It forces us to look upon our engagement in politics as a series of moral choices, rather than (to borrow a term of art from theology) a fundamental option, reached once and decided for all time. And it allows us to understand a specifically Catholic approach to making moral decisions.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers a three-part framework: “The morality of human acts depends on: the object chosen; the end in view or the intention; [and] the circumstances of the action.” Of these three “sources” of morality, the payola case easily passes the standard of the last two: The intention in receiving is to use the money for the benefit of the poor; the circumstances of acceptance tell us that no conditions were imposed, no attempt to hide was made. It is the first source, the object itself, that is problematic. As Among Ed himself said, in analyzing what he called his “first test” as priest-turned-governor, he will not receive money from jueteng or other crimes. His decision to receive the Palace money and put it to good use, therefore, depends on the (perceived) nature of the funds. Now, whether the funds are the fruits of a crime or not, on that issue reasonable people can disagree.

* * *

What is the cost of Malacañang’s blithe bribe-giving culture? An unlikely answer may be found in the World Bank’s under-appreciated attempt to quantify “intangible capital,” titled “Where is the Wealth of All Nations?” Bribes equal loss of trust in public institutions, equals decrease in national wealth. You could look it up.

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