THE ABS-CBN media behemoth is an anomaly that has made a mockery of our democracy. This started in the late 1950s, when the landlord oligarch clan, the Lopezes, added to their empire what was then a new medium, television, which proved to be more powerful in reaching the masses than their Manila Chronicle newspaper.
We are the only country in Asia to have such a powerful oligarch as the dominant player in broadcast media, the most effective venue in the modern era for molding the masses’ political consciousness and choices.
Japan has the mammoth NHK, South Korea’s three major network are either government-run or funded, and Singapore’s broadcast and print media are subsidiaries of the government investment fund Temasek Holdings.
Here we have an oligarch clan (in ABS-CBN Corp.), a triumvirate of magnates in another (GMA7) and a foreign tycoon (Indonesian Salim in TV5).
Worse for our democracy, the Lopezes weren’t just ordinary oligarchs. They owned for many decades the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco), the monopoly electricity distributor in Metro Manila, whose fortunes were 100 percent dependent on government regulations.
The Lopezes’ ABS-CBN made presidential elections a farce.
While the outcome of presidential elections are determined by a complex of factors, ABS-CBN has been a dominant factor, a big kingmaker, as the masses are hypnotized by ABS-CBN as they watch the 6 p.m. news while waiting for their teleserye or comedy programs.
Miriam Defensor-Santiago in 1992 had tapped the idealism not only of the youth, but of the masses on a scale rivaling that of Rodrigo Duterte more than two decades later. The Lopezes, though, backed Fidel Ramos, their patron Corazon “Cory” Aquino’s anointed. It was enough for a dozen or so coverage by ABS-CBN showing Santiago in a tantrum, and spreading the meme (before that word was invented) of Miriam as “Brenda” — for brain-damaged — to get the dull general win the elections.
Despite media’s portrayal of him as a dum-dum, Joseph “Erap” Estrada was politically astute and sent all his celebrity “eraps” like Fernando Poe Jr. and allegedly his studio’s starlets to the Lopezes’ to get ABS-CBN behind his presidential bid. The Lopezes also hated candidate Jose de Venecia for his alleged support of the Marcos regime.
Or, perhaps, Erap did what medieval kings did, which was to establish an alliance through their children’s marriage. We learned about that only a year after the elections, when Manuel “Beaver” Lopez Jr. married Erap’s unica hija (at least with Loi) Jackie.
The Lopezes, however, didn’t hesitate to abandon Erap — loyalty hasn’t been that clan’s strength — when the going got tough, as the jueteng and other scandals gave the Yellows and Ramos who feared Estrada would prosecute him for the so-called Centennial funds corruption, more than enough issues to stage a second People Power uprising.
Gloria Macapagal Arroyo tried very hard to get the Lopezes to her side, when she assumed power by accident in 2001. As Arroyo’s chief of staff, I attended a few dinners with Oscar and Manolo at her family’s Forbes Park home to shoot the breeze as they say, although after the main meal the two Lopezes would meet with Arroyo at her living room, with no other people there.
The Lopezes needed Arroyo badly at that time. While Cory was in power, they racked up hundreds of millions of loans from the Development Bank of the Philippines in the hope of quickly building up the empire they lost during martial law. However, they couldn’t seem to put their finances and even their house in order, especially after their primus inter pares Eugenio Lopez Jr. died in 1999.
That was the worst time for the patriarch to pass away as the 1998 to 1999 global financial crisis hit, and the Lopez empire had accumulated substantial foreign debt, the peso equivalent of which more than doubled as the exchange rate zoomed form P26 in 1996 to P54 by 2003.
The biggest problem though of the Lopezes involved their family jewel, Meralco, since the so-called Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira) was passed in June 2001, but was implemented only starting 2007 due to delays because of the suits against it that dragged on up to the Supreme Court.
I was assigned both before the law was passed and after to help Meralco with a small group of Arroyo’s closest Cabinet members in getting their “side” into the Act and then having their side taken into account by the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) that decides on how much Meralco could charge its customers.
With then Trade and Industry Secretary Manuel Roxas 2nd (who was believed to be very close to the Lopezes, his fellow Ilonggo), Energy Secretary Vicente Perez Jr. and presidential legal counsel Avelino Cruz Jr., we met several times in secret with Meralco Chairman Manuel Pangilinan and his vice president, a lady in charge of electricity economics.
We spent so many hours poring over the details of how the firm’s prices were to be “unbundled” (i.e., its costs made transparent), how the “performance-based rating” system which replaced the “return on rate base” method that had been in effect since 1986, would work in practice.
While purportedly aimed at encouraging private sector investment in the power industry, the new pricing system made electricity costs in the country one of the highest in the world, while turning Meralco into a cash cow for its owners.
For some reason I don’t know though – I left Malacañang in 2005 to become the ambassador to Greece — Arroyo, or the Energy Regulatory Commission delayed the implementation of the new price system. With Meralco’s costs zooming up because of the peso’s devaluation, it was racking up so much losses to nearly keel over.
Coincidentally or not, the so-called Hello Garci scandal broke out in 2005 when Arroyo was recorded talking over the phone with a Comelec commissioner before the 2004 elections. The group of inane Cabinet members called the Hyatt 10 resigned and called for her resignation, Cory and Cardinal Jaime Sin demanded that the president step down. ABS-CBN became vicious in its attacks against Arroyo.
With their finances getting worse, the Lopezes sold Meralco to their ally, the Indonesian Anthoni Salim, in March 2009. A few months later, the ERC implemented the Epira’s pricing system. Meralco’s profits starting that year zoomed, with its dividends expanding from P1 billion in 2007 to P2.8 billion the year Salim took over and to at least P12 billion every year since 2013.
In the 2010 elections, ABS-CBN went all-out for Benigno Aquino 3rd’s presidential bid, its huge corps of journalists throwing dirt on the main rival then, the magnate Manuel Villar, tagging him as “Villarroyo” and running “investigative reports” alleging how he got highways in Las Piñas built near the vast subdivisions he was developing. Villar ended up third, with Manuel Lopez’s in-law Estrada the runner up.
The Lopezes’ kingmaker role in the post-war era isn’t really new, as a University of California doctoral dissertation narrated:
“The Lopezes are the only family that has consistently stayed on the fringes of power since 1945, when they came to power with [Manuel] Roxas. Consistently they have been the manipulators of political balances in this country. When they abandoned Quirino and the Liberal Party in the 1950s, there was a stampede out. When they joined the Magsaysay bandwagon in the 1960s, they forced Garcia down.
“Then Macapagal came; but in two years the Lopezes were able to bring about a crisis of major proportions against him, and so bring on his downfall. And it was the Lopezes who engineered the coup of Ferdinand Marcos against Senate President Rodriguez that started his bid for the presidency. They rode with Marcos (and supported his bid for the presidency in 1965, and then abandoned him in 1969). What makes them so deadly? One: their control of media. They have one of the best radio and TV networks in the country.”
Now do you think that Sen. Miguel Zubiri’s complaint that with ABS-CBN closed he won’t be able to watch ANC in the morning anymore, the sympathy that 2,500 of its employees (per BIR figures) will lose their jobs, or the fear we won’t be informed about the pandemic anymore make any sense?
This Congress, the 18th, and this President, Duterte, the only president who won without ABS-CBN’s backing, will go down in history as oligarch-killers, as builders of Philippine democracy.