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Inquirer reporter did PR for controversial Mercedes-Benz distributor CATS Motors

IT was a Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) business reporter, Daxim Lucas, who represented CATS Motors owner Felix Ang in offering the Manila Times’ main stockholder Dante Ang advertising revenues in exchange for favorable or even no coverage of the luxury car company’s tax woes.

The Manila Times in recent weeks had run articles that alleged that investigators of both customs and internal revenue bureaus had reported to their superiors that the company had been undervaluing its reported Mercedes-Benz cars in order to evade taxes.

My Chinese-Filipino sources alleged that Felix Ang likes to boast to his friends that he is a personal friend of President Duterte and that he “officially” had donated P10 million to his campaign funds last year, hinting that his support was more than that.

It seems to be a practice of the owners of CATS Motors—the sole distributor of Mercedes-Benz cars here—to ingratiate themselves with the incumbent President. Its former chairman Gregorio Yu officially donated P5 million to President Aquino’s campaign kitty in the 2010 elections. Sources claimed that the amount was much bigger, which explains why Yu who had never been a government employee was in the board of the Government Service Insurance System, the state-run pension fund for government employees, for the entire term of Aquino, getting an annual salary of about P2.5 million.

Officers in the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) claimed that their boss during the immediate past administration, Kim Henares, had thrown to the wastebasket their recommendation to investigate CATS Motors for undervaluing its cars’ prices in computing its revenues subject to tax. This was despite the fact that their report was approved by their three higher levels of supervisors, including the deputy commissioner for the BIR’s legal and inspection group.

The big-picture question over a business reporter acting as a PR for a company facing adverse press: Has journalism these days become so bad that this is now an accepted practice in the profession, for reporters to be press relations officers for private companies? A ranking media officer of a conglomerate indeed told me: “That’s so very common among business journalists these days.” A veteran columnist told me he’s often pissed off with reporters, even from his own newspaper, “interceding” for people he has written adversely about. “PR is legitimate racket for PR pros, but not of newsmen,” the columnist said.

SPIKED? PDI report on CATS Motors posted in its Facebook page, but nowhere to be found in its website.

The term PR in this country has indeed become a euphemism for an operator who manages to bribe in so many varied ways a reporter and/or an editor to “spin” an article in his client’s favor, or even to totally stop publication of adverse reportage on him.

I was shocked that PDI reporter Lucas didn’t even invoke confidentiality when he texted Dante Ang requesting for an appointment “as an emissary” of CATS Motors. In his e-mail to me when I asked him to comment on the report, he didn’t seem to find anything wrong acting as a PR for the car importer. Is moonlighting as PR men an accepted practice at the PDI?

What follows is Lucas’ unedited, complete e-mail reply:

“Thank you for giving me the opportunity to clarify the matter. I appreciate it.

“I visited Dante Ang yesterday [September 6] in my personal capacity at the request of my friends/sources in the industry regarding CATS Motors.

“The company was the subject of an adverse article in The Manila Times, and they wanted a firmer grasp of where the negative news was coming from, especially since, according to them, the issue in question had already been settled with authorities in the past.

“Having been a former employee of the Times—and Mr. Ang having been my boss for two years in the previous decade—I set up a meeting with him.

“We met at the Manila Times where I conveyed the message from CATS’ principals that they wanted to be ‘on friendly terms’ with the publication. ‘How can you [meaning both parties]be on friendlier terms,’ I asked him, relaying their concern.

“Mr. Ang explained the editorial process of the paper, stressing its independence and saying CATS could have its side aired anytime prominently.

“I then asked Mr. Ang if his editorial policy toward CATS would be different if the company were an advertiser. He replied: ‘I have no problem being friends with them, and ads are always welcome—who doesn’t want ads, right? —but I cannot commit to killing the story.’

“I left it at that, thanked him, told him I would relay the message back, and we proceeded to talk about the local media industry and other news.”

Under Felix’s orders
I know that it was Felix Ang himself who asked—or ordered—Lucas to talk to Dante Ang because of my involvement in this episode. Two friends of Felix Ang had called me asking if I could arrange a meeting between Felix and Dante for the former to convince the newspaper owner that the firm wasn’t guilty of any tax or customs-duty evasion.

I refused to do so, and told them I was not Felix’s PR man. However, I told them that Dante Ang was a fair man, and he would agree to talk to Felix. I gave them Dante’s personal cell phone number, emphasizing that it had to be Felix who should call Dante to request for a meeting.

Apparently, Felix Ang thinks himself so important that it is beneath him to call a newspaper owner to make an appointment. Instead, it was Lucas who called Dante – on the confidential cell phone number that I gave.

There are important questions that arise over this episode. Does Lucas and other business reporters have a number of businessmen as clients? Lucas has even won several “awards,” the latest of which was “Investigative Journalist of the Year” last year. It was awarded by the Rotary Club of Manila, whose awards are handled by two of the country’s top (or most expensive) PR men, one recently appointed ambassador, and the other President Estrada’s former media man.

If Lucas can do PR to convince another newspaper not to run adverse stories on his client, he must also have done “PR” with his own newspaper for CATS Motors.

Based on a Google search, PDI had no article at all regarding investigations published in other newspapers, alleging that CATS Motors* had undervalued the prices of its car imports. PDI though had similar articles on charges against other luxury car importers such as PGA Cars, Vikings, Inc., and Asian Car Makers.

But a particular recent report on CATS Motors, unless PDI can explain it, shows that even an adverse article on the firm that was already posted on the newspaper’s Internet edition was spiked** and didn’t make it to the print edition.

In October last year, the PDI’s Facebook page reported that then Customs Commissioner Nicanor Faeldon had announced that he was filing charges against CATS Motors, which he “accused of cheating the government out of P233.8 million in unpaid duties and taxes on 138 Mercedes-Benz cars in 2015. The Bureau of Customs even tweeted the PDI report, posting the link (i.e., location in the Internet) of the PDI article.

If you click on the links on that report in PDI’s Facebook and in the BoC’s twitter, the result is a message from the PDI website: “Sorry, this page doesn’t exist.” (See photo.) A Google search using the article’s title leads only to the PDI Facebook post.

I am quite familiar with the Internet versions of a newspaper as I was senior vice president for inq7.net (the doomed version of inquirer.net) and helped in the setting up of this newspaper’s website. That the article on CATS Motors can’t be found simply means that it was deleted from the website. That’s how powerful the company’s PR man was.

No wonder that Filipino businessmen, according to business journalists’ portrayal of them, are the angels of the capitalist world, incapable of doing bad things.

*Daimler of Germany in 2014 ordered CATS Motors to spin off its importing functions into a separate company Auto Nation Group, which became the official distributor of Mercedes-Benz in the country. CATS Motors became the retail dealer which also provided maintenance and service for the cars.

** “Spike” was the old American term for stopping a newspaper article from being published. The local term is simply “pinatay”.