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How to Cover PNoy: Absurd, Offensive, Lovelife Questions All Welcome

Testy exchanges and SMS queries.
by Joel Guinto
Just now
This photo taken on April 14, 2015 during an interview with AFP shows Philippine President Benigno Aquino on a video screen as he speaks at the Malacanang Palace in Manila.
Photo/s: Ted Aljibe, Agence France-Presse

It was a few days before he was sworn into office and then president-elect Noynoy Aquino was cocooning in Tarlac. The "brat pack" of reporters that covered his campaign was on his trail. A partymate died and he had to visit the wake.

On stakeout for days with no fresh soundbites, the reporters asked for a sit-down. The only place available was a corner near the morgue, where there was a slight hint of embalming fluid in the air. We were a diverse group that chased him relentlessly.

I was with Bloomberg News at that time and by default, I had to ask him about the economy. I asked about whether he planned to balance the budget or maintain a deficit. He answered and I got my story for the day, but not without getting a jab to this effect -- I can't believe you are asking me that question in a mortuary.

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That was PNoy, he'll answer any question with honesty and candidness but he will always give reporters a piece of his mind.

He was also very game to answer questions about his love life, which was not my problem until he compared it to Coke Zero, when he wished it were Coke Light (Coca-Cola is a listed company). Yes, he loves Coke, smokes Marlboros and indulges in crispy corned beef. 

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He also answers questions via text, a nightmare for his security and gatekeepers. He broke the extension of then Bangko Sentral Governor Amando Tetangco Jr's term to Bloomberg via text, thanks to an insider tip that he would go through appointment papers that night. The peso rallied the next day.

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In 2014, I had just transferred to Agence France-Presse and Aquino was our guest at the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines luncheon. It was just days after a U.S. Marine, Joseph Scott Pemberton, killed Filipina transgender Jennifer Laude.

I asked the President about observations that Pemberton was being treated with kid gloves as he had not been transferred to a local jail. He said the question was "absurd" but answered it nonetheless. There are agreements between Manila and Washington that cover criminal custody, he said.

I was humiliated before a ballroom full of expats, businessmen and colleagues but I still got the story, and a sit-down with him for AFP months after. It was a "testy exchange" according to my AFP senior, Cecil Morella. There was no bad blood, I thought, just candid banter. For both of us, trabaho lang.

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President Benigno Aquino (C) speaks during the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines'(FOCAP) forum in Manila on Oct. 23, 2013. Ted Aljibe, Agence France-Presse
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That exchange was in no way limited to myself. Members of the brat pack and the Aquino-era Malacanang Press Corps all had their share of question time with the President. It didn't matter if he was taking the long escalator at SMX. We'd shout a question and when he stops, his guards will oblige a scrum.

A few months after he took office, he took heat for buying a second-hand Porsche. How can a luxury sports car fit into Daang Matuwid? To those who know him personally, the President likes fast cars and saw no ill in acquiring one second hand.

It was during a visit to the Department of Foreign Affairs that he answered the criticisms. It was at the press office on the ground floor, as he was on his way out. Aquino said he sold the Porsche and "That's the last time I'm going to talk about that car." I forgot who asked the question.

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During an earlier FOCAP forum in 2011, the South China Morning Post's Raissa Robles asked Aquino if he was playing video games at the height of the Luneta bus siege the year before. For context, Hong Kong citizens died in the incident and the SCMP is based in Hong Kong.

"I'm sorry. I'm also human. But I feel kind of insulted when I'm asked to disprove a non-event," Aquino replied.

Robles would later tell ANC: "PNoy is not the type to rant. But you see it in his face that he doesn’t like something and he’s very blunt about it. I like that in a President."

The stakeouts in Aquino's Malacanang were long and the travels were far. On Oct. 12, 2012, a Sunday, we received a text advisory from Susan Esguerra, the MPC's Ate Susan who sends out his for-coverage sked. It was for a late afternoon announcement from the President -- the MILF agreed to talk to establish the Bangsamoro political entity.

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By late February of the following year, we were inaugurating a learning center in the MILF's main camp in Darapanan, Sultan Kudarat.

I never considered myself to be close to Aquino, it was a working relationship mostly. I was never part of his House clique when he was a congressman but I covered him because my job depended on it.

In March 2013, my mother died unexpectedly and I didn't tell anyone in the Palace. It was private and the wake was in Nueva Ecija, three hours from Manila. I think it was on the second day, when flowers arrived. It was from the President and I got a call from his assistant secretary for the press, ex-brat packer Rey Marfil, that his boss sent them with condolences and that he was there in case I needed help.

I didn't take them up on their offer but was deeply touched. And amused. The entire barangay didn't know what to do first -- take a selfie with the wreath from the President or offer their sympathies.

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When Abante reporter Rose Miranda died of breast cancer in May 2011, Aquino visited her wake. Miranda is one of the kindest souls on the news beat and is remembered by her colleagues in the Defense and Malacanang Press Corps.

On June 24, 2021, Aquino died after laying low politically since he stepped down in 2016. He passed away one year before a national election, just like his mother, Corazon Aquino in 2009. It was "mission accomplished", according to his grieving sisters.

Testy encounters aside, Aquino said he understood the importance of engaging the media.  In his speech before FOCAP in 2013, he said: "Don’t worry. As always, I am prepared to answer any questions you might ask, because I recognize the paramount role you play."

"The issues and concerns you raise are ideally that which the global community likewise considers of great importance. In the same vein, your stories and reports are our window to the world."

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(The author, Reportr Editor-in-Chief Joel Guinto covered the Aquino campaign and his stint in Malacanang from 2009 to 2015, for Bloomberg News, and later for Agence France-Presse.)

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