Defining terms in pork barrel stories

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Friday, August 1, 2014


TO THIS day, months into the controversy that has raged over pork barrel, combatants still have to agree on what “pork barrel” means.

The term has evolved into something more than its original meaning in the U.S., which is “appropriation for political patronage, as for local improvements to please legislators’ constituents.”

The controversy is not about the motive for pork barrel, i.e., spreading the bounty of state among provinces and cities although waste can often result in ill-studied, politically driven projects.

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The scandal is about the looting of the money when lawmakers connive with bureaucrats and NGOs in pocketing funds instead of using them for the assigned purpose.

Discretionv

It is about the near-absolute discretion in choosing beneficiaries of funds for each lawmaker, nature of the project and the contractor. Saying the House member or senator does it on “mere whim” tends to exaggerate but isn’t entirely false because the lawmaker dictates the project and who gets it.

It is about the lack of oversight when the collusion involves supervisor and implementor.

At weekend the Palace and its critics tangled over whether lump-sum appropriations in the proposed 2015 national budget, P500 billion of the P2.6 trillion outlay, was pork barrel. Thus the puzzler again surfaced: What is pork barrel?

If PDAF is pork, DAP must also be pork: the money in PNoy’s hands is, as one critic puts it, humongous and the control is more firm than any lawmaker’s hold over his allotment.

Unfortunately, unlike debaters in college, speakers in political forums don’t define terms before joining the fray.

On second thought, maybe the ambiguity helps them defend something tough to defend.

Context

Of course, media can help:

-- By pointing out the lack of a more specific definition and the need for having one for a less confusing discussion.

-- By putting context in the story, such as as whether critics oppose the wide discretion in spending huge sums of money or the Palace argues for it by citing what the law allows it to do.

-- By summarizing, in Q and A or other plain version, the crux of the argument, especially in overly technical parts.

Often the reporting descends to the level of “they said/others said.” Unavoidable in the arena of clashing claims but can be made less complex by explaining how and why the views collide.

Citing authority

If there’s a definition of terms by an authority, then that may be cited to help the reader make informed judgment. For example: “Cross-border transfer” of savings is often not explained, with the reporter and editor assuming the reader knows what it means.

Often, the media consumer does not or doesn’t remember. The story need not be a grader-handbook telling but filling in the gaps can make it clearer to the reader. At least, for readers who scan beyond headlines and photos.

President Aquino, defending his DAP as a non-pork barrel, asked the TV audience to read the Supreme Court decision to understand it better.

That indicates (1) he didn’t think people understood the decision based on media reports and (2) he thought people would bother to read a 92-page or something legal treatise.

He’s right in first thought; he’s wrong in second. Even PNoy himself was most likely just given a brief on what the ruling said. Legal language generally bores non-lawyers; the SC decision could put everyone else to sleep.

More required

A significant footnote is that despite the depth of the DAP issue, it has shaken up people in a way not experienced before.

Before, scandals that set off public tumult were plain gut issues, not over legal principles or techniques in juggling funds from savings.

Some people though ask: what can be more gut-like than the loss and waste of public money? People understand the stealing even if technicalities of law and budgeting confound them.

More is expected from the public to sift through the opposing claims and charges. And more is required of journalists to present both sides fairly without being obscure or simplistic.

[publicandstandards@sunstar.com.ph or paseares@gmail.com]

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on August 02, 2014.

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