Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Faking surveys

This is one country where almost everything can be faked. Even the sitting president is a fake.

News is managed because of competing interests. Some publishers and network moguls represent vested interests, their own or those who generously keep their media outfits afloat. Some vested interests, political, economic, or both, also maintain retinues of so-called "publicists."

Some publicists think up and propose communication strategies to their clients. Others are nothing more than bribe-givers, "pagadores" who know no strategy, and define communications tactics purely on the basis of "how much."

Generally, big corporations who appreciate the importance of proper communications and public imaging maintain in-house corporate communications staff, augmented at times by outside consultants when "crisis" strikes. In our corrupted society, some "consultants" dispense nothing more than advice on who in media gets paid how much. This is not to say that this happens only in the Philippines. Even in supposedly "strict" polities where corruption has been effectively minimized, some level of "gentle persuasion" of policy-makers and program implementers manages to continue in actual practice, albeit less brazen and perhaps more sophisticated. In the benighted islands however, everything goes, and hardly anything is unacceptable or inexcusable.

In a polity where so-called perception or opinion surveys have taken over the job of selecting candidates for public office from the political party convention, popularity with accompanying survey figures constitute the singular measure of fitness for election.

One becomes a candidate for senator because he or she has high awareness ratings and adequate conversion of such national awareness into voting potential. Thus, when he swore in Manny Pacquiao into his and his Dona Gloria’s Kampi, Ronnie Puno proudly exclaimed that Pacman could well be a senator of the realm, except that he would be younger than the age qualification prescribed by law. He insults our collective intelligence, but then again, he is probably just telling the truth. Which is why we elect dolts into public office, and his president appoints completely amoral persons to high office.

Thus, media laps up poll survey results, as if they were bible truth all the time. Hardly anyone explains to the people who read or listen to them that surveys are mere snapshots of public opinion for the given field research period. Thus, what may have been public perception in July 1 to 14 may be completely reversed three or six months after. Note how Hillary Clinton was a shoo-in one year ago, and Barack was yet "Obama who?" in the same period? But by June, the Democrats had changed their mind, and Obama is now their candidate, and with the aid of George W. Bush’ monumental failures, will likely be the next president of the most powerful nation on earth.

Here in this country though, as much as fiendish manipulators can manufacture election results, so too can surveys be manufactured – faked as fake can be, but passed off to a gullible people by media.

Take the latest so-called "confidential Malacañang" survey. Of course we know that Malacañang hires reputable and competent research companies, aside from its in-house researcher, Junie Laylo. Perception and public opinion research is an important tool both in the crafting of policy as well as the art of governance.

But think again – why would a "confidential Malacañang" survey be leaked to a rabidly "oppositionist" paper? But there it was, bannered by this "rabidly" opposition paper. Conveniently, the supposedly confidential survey, its provenance unidentified (because manufactured?) places the convicted and pardoned former president, Joseph Estrada, as "numero uno" in the presidential race.

The former president was beside himself with glee, but did not realize that he was just a convenient tool. The survey, supposedly taken the first week of September, shows the Senate President jumping by leaps and bounds, extremely close and poised to overtake the heretofore "front-runner," Vice-President Noli de Castro. And conveniently too, it shows Loren Legarda, Mar Roxas and the ignored because unreported Ping Lacson being thrashed by the extremely wealthy Manuel Villar.

Neat, eh? Then, the "publicists" juxtaposed another survey, this time real, with their media play. This was the July 1-14 Ulat ng Bayan of Pulse Asia, where the Senate President garnered a performance approval rating of 72 percent, higher than Noli de Castro’s 59 percent, and never mind Nograles or GMA misma, whose approval ratings languish. Conveniently, the media tactical play omitted the fact that Villar’s other opponents actually scored higher in approval rating than he did, or virtually tied with him. Lumping together performance approval ratings of a reputable survey group with a clearly manufactured "confidential Malacañang" survey makes the fake survey look credible, right?

You would think that otherwise "intelligent" radio and television commentators would see through the obvious ploy, but then again, those who lapped it up either didn’t think straight enough, or they were appropriately persuaded – how, I leave readers to guess.

Now let me flash back to a personal experience in the national elections of 1992. In March of the year before, I proposed to my principal, Sen. Orly Mercado, that he float the name of Chief Justice Marcelo B. Fernan Jr. for the upcoming presidential derby. He did so, on May 1, 1991, in Cebu City, Fernan’s home turf. What I had in mind was a Fernan-Mercado team-up for the 1992 elections.

Before then, the announced presidential hopefuls were Vice-President Doy Laurel, whose bitter clash with President Cory left him politically bruised and battered; Senate President Jovito Salonga whose advanced age was seen as a political infirmity; Speaker Ramon V. Mitra Jr., who headed the House of the traditional politicians; Defense Secretary Fidel V. Ramos, who deserted Marcos in Edsa but was hobbled by a colorless political personality and undercurrents of distaste for military types six years so soon after the collapse of military rule, and Ambassador Eduardo M. Cojuangco Jr. who, perception-wise, personified at the time, the "ancien regime" of Ferdinand the dictator, though highly regarded as a potential economic savior of an economy made moribund by military challenges to its stability, and even Senator Joseph Ejercito Estrada, the movie actor tuned political star.

Orly and I thought that Fernan, whose integrity was unquestioned, the only Bisaya in a field of sure candidates all from Luzon, would manage to solidify the Bisaya-speaking population in the Visayas and Mindanao. Thirty-five percent or so of the country spoke Cebuano, and if Fernan clinched Cory’s endorsement, we would have had the first Visayan president since Carlos P. Garcia.

Waiting in the wings was Lito Osmeña, then Cebu governor, who we were assured would give way to Fernan if the latter decided to run. There was also the threat of an Imelda Marcos run, but we calculated that would affect Danding, not us. And at the time, Miriam Defensor Santiago was just a cause celebre, not yet the serious candidate she eventually became.

To cut a long story short, Fernan eventually became Monching Mitra’s vice-presidential candidate, and I was drafted into that campaign. I became the campaign spokesman of the Mitra-Fernan tandem, which led over a ticket of 24 senatorial candidates of which all but six were shoo-ins. We had a humongous party, the LDP, and virtually unlimited resources. But I knew even at the outset that Tata Monching was a hard sell, and survey after survey showed us that the battle, while close, had Tata Monching’s chances, well…chancy.

We had likewise a huge propaganda machinery, the entire Aquino siblings with Paul Aquino as campaign director and Lupita Aquino Kashiwahara as chief media handler. Famous names in advertising and media were consultants. Yet, the people never really seemed to warm up to our presidential candidate. I kept touting our vaunted organization in interviews because there was no way I could claim survey popularity. The machine will deliver the votes, I kept saying like a broken record, but I had this unease in the pit of my guts.

One day, the campaign honchos handed to me a supposed US Embassy survey which placed Mitra on top. Hallelujah! Except when I looked at the "methodology," I knew it was a great credibility stretch. But what the heck, I thought. We were desperate and I was getting paid well.

Of course nobody believed the "survey" despite the stateside pretensions. But media lapped it up. We were banner story in the tabloids, which of course I knew we had virtually bought.

On Election Day, we lost, and lost miserably. We were number four in a field of seven serious candidates, behind Ramos, Miriam and Cojuangco. Mitra got only 14 percent of the national vote. Fernan got close to 30 percent, and would have been a sure winner had Erap not switched to vice-president of Danding halfway through the campaign period. If Fernan had persisted in running for president, and gotten the same number of Bisaya votes as he did in the vice-presidential race, he would have won over all the seven other candidates. Ramos after all got only 24 percent of the national vote to Miriam’s 21 percent and Danding’s 18 percent.

So why do I now recall that harrowing experience of a failed campaign? Well, because most of the guys who helped run the Mitra campaign, my friends even, are now rooting for the beleaguered president of the Senate. They are oozing with pre-campaign money, products of a "Sipag at Tiyaga" handle that has since been corrupted to "Singit at Taga", and of late, a text message that proclaims "C-5 at Taga".

Will lots of money, provenance dubious, once more succeed in buying elections, in much the same way that an incumbent in 2004 used fake fertilizer funds, a humongous machinery, and faked the counting? If money, and lots of it, is all it takes to become president, heaven help this country and its people.