For the past few weeks, the Philippine media have been intensely focused on a controversy regarding a foreign loan meant to fund the creation of the National Broadband Network (NBN) , a project envisioned to seamlessly link all government offices across the archipelago via the Internet. Whistleblower Jun Lozada  alleged in a senate committee hearing that a former high level official was poised to receive $130 million in kickbacks, a claim that has been repeatedly denied. As a student of public opinion, I watched how in a matter of days, an issue that had previously received relatively modest media attention reached top position on the national media agenda, and the ways in which a coalition led by the political opposition, civil society, and Lozada’s supporters with the help of the national press have kept it up there. Another person who testified to the senate committee that he was bribed in relation to the NBN deal is former economic planning secretary and now chair of the Philippine Commission on Higher Education  Romulo Neri  . He was recently put under intense public pressure to spill the beans about possible involvement of other high-level officials after Lozada claimed in a senate hearing and to a national television audience that Neri characterized the president as “evil” in a private meeting. In a press conference that followed, Neri said he did not recall saying this.
The interlocking roles played by public actors, interest groups, and the news media in driving the dynamics of public opinion are well studied and documented. In Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies, 2nd Ed. , Emeritus Professor John W. Kingdon  at the University of Michigan  summarizes these relationships in the following claims: interest groups use the press to communicate with each other; the media magnify the impact of movements and ideas; media affect elite agendas via public opinion; and the importance that public actors place on engaging the media varies from actor to actor. With regard to accountability relationships between and among individual government officials and the public, it often boils down to a “she said, he said” standoff, and it becomes increasingly difficult to predict how things will unfold. In my mind, a key political communication insight from various public controversies around the world is that one gains the public’s trust and support not only by building coalitions and facing the music in times of crisis (which are necessary conditions), but by passing the muster of plausibility and exuding a sense of authenticity. These twin challenges face all actors who are subject to public scrutiny: say it as it is while keeping it real.