Column: Eyes on the first debate

Published on February 16, 2016.

PROTOCOL AND prudence require the Vice President of the Philippines to be protected by a close-in security detail. Will these gentlemen be included in the list of 10 staff members each presidential candidate is allowed inside the venue of the first official presidential debate, in Cagayan de Oro City? Cavite Gov. Jonvic Remulla wanted to know.

Remulla is the kind of natural politician who will stand up in the middle of a meeting to literally pick up a seat or two and bring them to the table, just to make sure women at the meeting are not left standing. The polished way he asked the question made his request—he wanted the security men to be added to the list—sound even more reasonable than it probably deserved to be perceived.

Are we making an exception for Vice President Jejomar Binay’s security men? Akbayan party-list Rep. Barry Gutierrez retorted immediately.

Gutierrez is the sort of eager interlocutor who can make the most innocent questions sound like they have a serrated edge; his ready smile mitigates the impression, somewhat; and over the course of several meetings conducted under the auspices of the Commission on Elections to prepare for the presidential debates, the other representatives of the presidential candidates have learned to discount his bite and favor his smile.

But his use of the word “exception” was classic; it was both textbook-accurate and rhetorically cutting. Naturally enough, nobody in the meeting wanted to be accused of stripping Binay of his protection (not even Gutierrez). A consensus among the five presidential campaigns, the two lead organizers GMA Network and the Philippine Daily Inquirer, and the Comelec quickly emerged, settling on an option suggested by GMA’s Anj Atienza: If the security men stand outside the Vice President’s holding room, then the detail will not affect the number of staff members who can assist Binay at the debate venue.

Such are the minutiae involved in the making of the first presidential debate of the 2016 election season—which is also the first official Comelec-sanctioned presidential debate since 1992 and, if I am not mistaken, the first ever to be held outside “imperial Manila.”

Others include dry-run times for the candidates (at least 30 minutes for each, starting at mid-morning on Sunday, Feb. 21), the use of chairs for the candidates on stage, and additional seats for campaign supporters (a total of 35 per campaign, or 175 in all, leaving just 325 seats for the people of Cagayan de Oro—this was a difficult decision arrived at only after several meetings, because some campaigns wanted at least half of the seating capacity to be reserved for their loyal following).

* * *

The work on the Feb. 21 debate continues. GMA anchors Mike Enriquez and Jessica Soho have been meeting with the network’s production team both to hone the questions to be asked and to master the debate’s format—a complicated system of pairings that depend on both the tyranny of the alphabet (Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago, for instance, comes before Sen. Grace Poe Llamanzares) and random chance (the pairings for the third and fourth rounds were determined by drawing lots).

The pairings are new to the Philippine setting, at least when it comes to presidential debates. A candidate is given 90 seconds to answer a question, the candidate he or she is paired with in that round has 60 seconds to offer a rebuttal, then the first candidate has 30 seconds to issue a counter-rebuttal and close the argument.

This exchange is the heart of the first debate.

The Inquirer is also on the ground in Mindanao, conducting three Inquirer Town Halls in three different venues to seek a better understanding of what has been called the Mindanao Agenda—and to source both questions and solutions for use in the debate.

* * *

If a journalist cannot follow the debate live inside the main venue, in Capitol University, would he be better off watching the event on TV? That’s simply not true.

In the first place, it is perfectly reasonable for legitimate journalists to cover a high-profile event from a “media center”—a holding room for journalists, where the event can be viewed on TV screens or through a live-stream. When there are simply too many journalists accredited to cover the event, they cannot be accommodated at the main venue. (Otherwise, the public that has been invited to attend or take part in the event will be out of room.)

Secondly, and more to the point, the media center is only a base of operations. In events such as the climate change conference in Paris last December or the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Manila last November, journalists can literally find the space to do enterprise stories or conduct chance interviews or tease out unofficial angles. The same thing with the Feb. 21 debate: All the presidential candidates have agreed to go to the media center after the debate to meet with the media present there. (The United States has a name for this media opportunity: spin alley.)

So much for covering the debate by following it on TV.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

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