A scoop too far

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 September, 2010, 12:00am

The Manila hostage tragedy unfolded in front of our eyes. Live media broadcasts made us all witnesses to eight innocent lives cut short by madness and incompetence. The media brought immediacy to the situation, and the Philippine authorities, unable to respond appropriately, brought the heat and pressure upon themselves.

Footage and witness accounts from the media allowed so close to the situation underpin the importance of a free press. Without it, there would have been no evidence to expose the inadequacies of the Philippine SWAT team.

The sine qua non of the free press as the source of truth gives it the power to expose and enlighten, but it does not, for a second, mean that it can excuse itself from the responsibilities and obligations that come with its power. The rolling camera that allowed Rolando Mendoza to watch - live - his brother handcuffed and arrested may have been the straw that broke the camel's back. But Radio Mindanao Network's anchor Michael Rogas tied up Mendoza's phone line - a potential lifeline for the hostages - for almost an hour. That, it has been claimed, was crucial as no one, including the police, was able to reach and communicate with the gunman before he snapped and went on his rampage.

Keeping Mendoza on the line and the airwaves superseded all remaining attempts to resolve the situation at critical moments. Whether those attempts would have been adequate misses the point: the exclusive story of the hostage-taker talking live on Rogas' radio show was apparently more important.

While the news media could have been a strategic enabler, it became an operational impediment. Even the Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility, a non-profit organisation set up to protect free press and keep count of journalists killed in the line of duty in the Philippines, criticised the media's failure to recognise that hostage-takers, terrorists and the like count on the media to help further their cause and will monitor TV and radio broadcasts.

The centre went as far as asking the media 'to abandon the urge to excuse themselves and to have the good faith to accept the errors - errors likely to have prolonged the crisis last August 23, and worse, to have contributed to the deaths of [eight] people'.

There is a lesson here for us in Hong Kong, as well. Without our cameras rolling, and our journalists risking their personal safety, we would not have our eyewitness account of what went wrong. But without it, 15-year-old survivor Tracey Wong Cheuk-yiu, who was on board while both her parents were killed, would not have been further traumatised. While footage of staff at Philippine funeral homes opening coffins of the victims for photo ops enraged us, we should also have been outraged at those who stuck their cameras and microphones in Wong's face as she lay in her hospital bed, unaware of her parents' death.

By taking advantage of unrestricted access, the vulnerability of a teenager who has been to hell and back, and the added drama of Wong being unaware of what the world already knew, what 'story' were the media actually 'reporting'? It was cruel, unnecessary and ruthless; in fact, it was just short of feasting on the pain and suffering of others. If those on the ground were guilty of bad judgment in the heat of the moment, then the news executives, editors and producers at the studios were even more culpable by airing the interview. And there was no excuse for continuing to do so throughout the day.

It is also absurd for the public to be force-fed broadcasters' vain boast that Hongkongers are all rational people who embrace diversity while coercing collective pity for domestic helpers and people of Filipino origin in Hong Kong. Every government has its problems, and the ones faced by the Philippine government were made painfully apparent on August 23.

Coerced collective pity - to make one feel above another - strips people of their dignity. That, too, is feasting on the tragedy and helplessness of the vulnerable.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA