Bernad’s benediction

When I heard the news that the great Miguel Bernad, SJ had passed away, I remembered that he had written the Inquirer a letter to the editor that was as unusual as it was short. It was out of the ordinary because when he wrote it he was still a weekly columnist for the Star, and because it was unreserved praise. It took me some time to find the letter; I hadn’t yet been detailed to the Opinion desk when it was published, and my desktop’s archive search function was, well, dysfunctional. Last Sunday, though, I finally found both the editorial he praised, and the letter the newspaper published, back in September 2002.

I remember thinking then, when I first read the letter: Perhaps there really is a role for editorials-that-ask-questions. Bernad had given it his imprimi potest. It can be printed!

Editorial: September 9, 2002

Bottom-line questions

The controversy over the Ninoy Aquino International Airport’s Terminal 3 project illustrates the physics of publicity: too much heat, not enough light. The flurry of press releases and paid advertisements from almost all sides in the hundred-million-dollar dispute has buried the issues under the use of blatantly selective facts, masterful innuendo and extensive name-calling.

The dispute is an old one. It was partly the reason why Transportation Secretary Pantaleon Alvarez resigned earlier this year. But last week the controversy found its way back to the front page, when Secretary Gloria Tan Climaco, the presidential adviser for strategic projects, told the Senate she was negotiating a buyout of the German partners in Philippine International Air Terminals Co., the project concessionaire. The trickle of press statements then turned into a flood.

(A piece of advice for press agents: Errors of fact are also mistakes in strategy. They give the game away. Last Thursday, for instance, press releases from at least two of the vocal anti-takeover congressmen and one from Piatco itself made reference to the “five-man” Cabinet review committee. This is wrong, of course; the top-level panel consists of seven Cabinet secretaries, including its chair Justice Secretary Hernando Perez. But while the same facts may appear in independent statements, the same error of fact can only appear in statements written by the same hand, or sharing the same mis-information. Two releases with the exact same error of fact may be coincidence; three is a conspiracy.)

The controversy is far from simple, but we believe it can be reduced to three key issues.

Who are the parties involved? If the Piatco spokesperson is to be believed, the dispute is merely a stockholders’ squabble that turned ugly when its partners from Fraport AG ran crying to the government. He is of course mistaken. The construction and operation of the country’s flagship gateway is not merely imbued but permeated with public interest. This does not mean, however, that Congress, which has already seen three House investigations and one Senate probe, is the best forum for defending this interest. If critics find certain provisions of the contract onerous, they are, as Piatco’s chief legal counsel maintains, better off running to the courts.

But there is also the matter of equity and investment participation. The Cheng Yong group owns 60 percent of the company, but Fraport raised 80 percent of the project cost. It is also Climaco’s position that Fraport actually has effective control of Piatco, because of its interests in Piatco affiliates. This puts the burden of responsibility squarely on Piatco to explain who its stockholders are, who owns which, and why its German partners felt their only recourse was to strike a deal with the government.

Where did the money go? The project has consumed a lot of money; unfortunately, nobody knows exactly how much. Climaco says $650 million; Piatco says $550 million; Fraport says it has for its part already invested $375 million. The only certainty is that the project has cost much more than it should have. Much needs to be explained, and it is incumbent on Piatco to do the explaining. The company can start with the strange case of the elusive consultant Alfonso Liongson, who earned $2.1 million in six months but cannot even be prevailed upon to testify at the Senate.

Is the contract onerous? It is not true to say, as opposition leader Sen. Edgardo Angara has said, that the Macapagal administration pointed to the allegedly onerous provisions only after the proposed buyout became public knowledge. A letter from Climaco already listed 28 such provisions — way back in March. The question is: Are these in fact onerous? Now that all parties have committed to cooperating with Perez’s Cabinet committee, it should only be a matter of time before the public can have a satisfactory answer. This will lead to the most intriguing question of all: How did those provisions worm their way into the contract?

Angara is right in an important sense; the times call for less government intervention in business. But our laws do provide for exceptions, and the Piatco contract, as it stands now, is clearly one of them. If it’s broke, the government should fix it — first, by asking the bottom-line questions.

Bernad’s letter to the editor: September 16, 2002

Congratulations for your editorial, “Bottom-line questions,’’ last Sept. 9, concerning the controversy over the construction of the Naia Terminal 3. That was clear and logical thinking, expressed clearly and forcefully, and based on solid ethical premises. This kind of editorial is journalism at its best.

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Filed under Readings in Media, Spiral Notebook

One response to “Bernad’s benediction

  1. Pingback: Column: Tony Blair, essentially « Newsstand

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