•The author covered the Aquino presidency for six years
• Former President Aquino made himself broadly accessible to the media, giving frank and lengthy answers in interviews
• With a copy of the Constitution on standby, PNoy rattled off facts and figures to back up pronouncements
• He did not hide annoyance when faced with some pointed or provocative questions from the press but he neither raised his voice nor resorted to vulgar language, and instead gave a reply to a reporter’s question
• Aquino was not shy about showing dismay when the press focused on the status of his love life, his latest car possession, and other controversies, but reminded the press to help elevate level of discourse and give the same attention to other issues
• ‘Bago ako magtapos’ was often the signal that he was about to issue off-the-cuff remarks. At times, his spontaneous comments were longer than the prepared speech
• Before stepping down from office, Aquino had a farewell luncheon with the Palace press corps. He appreciated the good relationship with the press corps, even with a few testy encounters
Meeting the country’s President could either leave you awestruck, inspired or disappointed. And if the top official bore an illustrious family name, meeting him can be extra intimidating. But when it came to the country’s 15th president who was averse to the trappings of power, former President Benigno Aquino III, or PNoy, was a folksy, down-to-earth, and mild-mannered leader especially when dealing with the Palace journalists. The humble scion of the Aquino family had respect for free press even though he frowned on the negativism in media.
Covering the Aquino presidency for six years meant pursuing the low-key leader in public engagements in and out of the Palace, listening to long speeches peppered with anecdotes, and at times bearing with his occasional scolding.
The soda and chicharon-lovin’ bachelor leader, duty-bound to serve the people with honor 24/7, was largely open and accessible to the Palace media. He often granted interviews with journalists whether here or abroad (thanks to the smooth coordination with Usec Rey, Paolo and the rest of the indefatigable MARO team), giving candid, lengthy and even blunt remarks but staying respectful. With a copy of the Constitution on standby, the former President, often seen in white polo barong and yellow ribbon, rattled off facts and figures to back up his pronouncements.
No vulgar language
But there were times Aquino’s relations with the press were not so amicable. He showed irritation and complained about inaccurate and negative news reports and called for fair reporting. He did not hide annoyance when faced with some pointed or provocative questions from the press. Despite this, he neither raised his voice nor resorted to vulgar language and instead still gave a reply to a reporter’s question as best he could.
Respect for the media
A lawmaker before his rise to the presidency in 2010 on a wave of popular support following the death of his mother Cory Aquino, the former leader said he respected the media’s role in reporting the truth. But he commented that media could be critical and still contribute to the nation’s growth. There were some missteps, he admitted, but there was room for improvement and even room to celebrate even the small triumphs.
Citing some examples, he spoke about some poor beneficiaries of cash subsidy program studying in universities and tech-voc schools, the equipment upgrade and training in the government’s storm forecasting, and the improvements in the Manila airport. “It is no longer considered the worst airport in the world,” he said.
Elevate level of discourse
Aquino was not shy about showing dismay when the press focused on the status of his love life, his latest car possession, and other controversies. He knew his private life was of interest to the public but he often reminded the press to help elevate the level of discourse and give the same attention to other issues and concerns that matter as well.
Self-deprecating jokes to drive a home a point
This was apparently partly why Freddie Aguilar’s popular song “Estudyante Blues” with the lyrics “Ako ang nakikita. Ako ang nasisisi. Ako ang laging may kasalanan” was one of his favorite songs at the start of his term. With life in a fishbowl, he often turned to jokes, even self-deprecating ones about his love life, or the lack of it, and his thinning hair, to lighten the mood or drive home a point.
Early in his term, the President would take time to reply to media queries through text messages. It was a practice apparently honed with his working relationship with reporters during his stint as a lawmaker. But as months went by, the big job of being the President took away that task from him. Aquino’s text replies were no longer the norm as the Palace communication team formalized the official channels.
Aquino’s well-researched speeches were usually prepared by his team composed mostly of young individuals, an indication how he had much respect and admiration for the youth. But he often veered away from the script and delivered extemporaneous remarks. He had a good command of the language – both in Filipino and English – and he could deliver unscripted remarks very well.
We learned to watch out for the phrase “Bago ako magtapos” as this was often the signal that he was about to issue off-the-cuff remarks. At times, his spontaneous comments were longer than the prepared speech, and offered more content for our stories.
Aquino’s relations with Palace journalists, especially those who covered him when he was still a lawmaker, went beyond work. On special occasions, he dined and sang karaoke with reporters, just like a common colleague would do. He had simple cravings too, much like the ordinary folks – Coke, chicharon, and burgers.
But even during those casual and unofficial get-togethers, reporters still tried to squeeze him for information and reaction on issues whenever they got the chance. Sometimes he indulged by saying something that could be a story. Anything the President of the country would say is news.
Aquino did not allow being the President to keep him from doing what would be considered small social gestures. He made time to pay his final respects with a visit at the wake of Abante reporter Rose Miranda in Cavite back in 2012. Miranda was a beloved member of the Malacañang Press Corps. The President took a break from his work and personally relayed his condolences to the family of Miranda.
Before stepping down from office, Aquino had a farewell luncheon with the Palace press corps. He appreciated that he still had a good relationship with the press corps save for some testy encounters.
“I think we had a better deal with the Malacañang Press Corps rather than the outside media elements,” Aquino told journalists during an interview on June 17, 2016.
“For the most part, I think you are reasonable. We understand where you are coming from. We understand the pressures from your various desks to produce the story that they want. I think you have treated us reasonably well. You have your pressures, you understand our concerns and we have reached a very good level of working relationship,” he said. It was a remark which showed his respect for media.
After six years in office, Aquino felt that he had a “happy” not “combative” state of affairs with the Palace press corps.
“Through the six years, we have gotten to know how to address each other’s needs that we have reached a happy state of affairs. Baka naman sobra ‘yung happy, but I think definitely not a combative state of affairs,” he said.
When Manila Standard reporter Joyce Pañares, then MPC president, thanked the President for making himself accessible to the press corps in the past six years, Aquino replied: “O, ‘di ako’y magpapaalam na sa inyo. At magkita na lang tayo somewhere down the line. Kung ikakasal na kayo, sa stag party niyo ako imbitahin.”
With dignity and the people’s interest
True enough, Aquino kept in touch with some reporters after he stepped down from office, having dinner and coffee especially during the Christmas holidays. He was still as humble and funny as before as he exchanged jokes and stories with journalists during the reunions.
While some criticized him for being too casual or not presidential, I witnessed how he held the office with dignity and with the people’s interest at heart.