By Romel Regalado Bagares
It’s been one bloody Sunday indeed and you probably know I’m not referring to the Mayweather-Cotto fight at the MGM Grand Garden (what a ho-hum affair!) but to something that happened right at home. You guessed it right, the One Airport Brawl to shame all other airport brawls, that one between a celebrity couple – Raymart Santiago and Claudine Barretto – and the tough-talking macho journalist Ramon Tulfo.
It’s one where celebrity, privacy claims, public interest questions and civility or the lack of it intersect in a most unlikely way. Let’s try to untangle this sordid mess that has dominated the social media chatter, at least in our part of the world.
Raymart and Claudine say they were demanding an explanation from a Cebu Pacific crew over an improperly off-loaded luggage belonging to their party from Boracay when the journalist entered the picture and took a video of his wife, using a mobile phone.
Raymart claims he gently asked Tulfo, who had planed in from Davao in another flight, what he was doing, and then demanded that the journalist turn over to him the latter’s mobile phone. Raymart, a sometime action movie actor, claims Tulfo invaded their privacy, hence his demand that the latter surrender his mobile phone to him. Instead, he received from the journalist the hard end of the latter’s fist. All hell broke loose because of that.
For his part, Tulfo denies throwing the first punch, claiming the commotion created by the couple at the airport as Claudine berated a hapless airline employee and threatened to have her dismissed by her employers set off his journalistic instincts; after all, in previous columns, he had criticized budget airlines like Cebu Pacific for giving unsuspecting passengers scrambling for cheap tickets the raw end of the deal.
It was all a matter of the public interest about the kind of service budget airlines allow their customers to suffer. And he didn’t take a video of Claudine, he took still photos.
Thus in one fell swoop three public figures found themselves embroiled in a controversy also made uncommon by the fact that one of them, the hard-hitting journalist, is used to sparring with the high and mighty in crime or politics or both but not with a celebrity couple from show business and– as a video of the altercation that has now gone viral apparently shows – some of the couple’s friends.
I thus protest any characterization of this altercation as a trivial one. The brawl is not trivial as it is. It’s the handling of the news about the brawl that could, and had become, trivial.
In fact, regardless of who drew first blood, this clash of claims directs us to key questions about the quality of public life many of us ordinary citizens suffer on a daily basis. It raises questions about the system of societal entitlements that allows celebrities to act like a law unto themselves in public even on the smallest of perceived slights. It requires us to ask ourselves whether we need more of the tough-talking journalism Ramon Tulfo and his kin have become known for in the face of an utterly unresponsive governmental bureaucracy. Too, it brings to the surface the hidden costs to a poorly regulated and wildly expanding low cost airline market headlined by a market leader like Cebu Pacific.
To begin with, celebrities are public figures, whether they like it or not. As a landmark case decided by the Philippine Supreme Court would put it, public figures are people who, by their accomplishments, fame, mode of living, or by adopting a profession or calling which gives the public a legitimate interest in their doings, theirs affairs and their character, have become “public personages.” By being one, the couple has ceded to the public any reasonable expectation of privacy in their doings, especially where one of them heaps verbal abuse on a fellow human being in such a public context as an international airport, whether justified or not.
Besides, there’s this interesting subtext to the act of extreme chivalry on Raymart’s part; only months before, the couple was caught in a very public spat over a conjugal bank account reportedly worth millions of pesos. For a while, it seemed like Raymart and Claudine were on their way to being un-coupled, as their respective lawyers sparred on national media as to who had the rightful entitlement to the money. Now it appears that they have since kissed and made up, as evidenced by their family’s fateful summer trip to Boracay.
Indeed, this backdrop somehow undercuts Raymart’s appeal to privacy: indeed, how can he do that now when he and Claudine have allowed an even more intimate aspect of their married life – a conjugal bank account – to be discussed publicly by their lawyers in the course of one of their conjugal disputes?
Raymart has no right to demand from the journalist that he surrender his mobile phone to him. That would be, in a broad sense, deprivation of private property without due process, besides being a curtailment of a journalist’s right to practice his profession to comment or report on a matter of public interest.
But you don’t have to be a hard-hitting journalist to know that poor customer service from an airline that trumpets its domination of the low cost carrier market in the Philippines – with a 76-percent market share –concerns the public.
A few months back, three Muslim scholars from Basilan on their way to Sudan to study Arabic were abducted by yet unidentified perpetrators at the luggage area of Terminal 3 where the brawl happened. They have not been heard from since then. When human rights activists asked for access to CCTV footage of the area, authorities told us there isn’t any. We had our doubts, but now we know that Terminal 3 indeed lacks a most basic security facility – a CCTV security camera system – at the luggage claim area. And we’re talking here of an international airport!
You also wonder whether the public persona who is Ramon Tulfo could have avoided the fisticuffs if he weren’t being himself. At least for some people, he has become a walking lightning rod for the kind of brute physicality you cannot help imagine while listening to one of his radio programs or while reading one of his newspaper columns. As purveyors of a kind of “brusque journalism,” he and the rest of the Tulfo brood are a success story and make no apology for it. Moreover, under our present circumstances, it is easy to accept that it is exactly the kind of journalism that moves things, that makes things work.
Yet you cannot help asking whether in the long run, it is the kind of journalism with which we wish to build a society where respect and solidarity – in a word, civility – are as important as peace and justice. Still, it might remain the troubling case that for as long as governance in the Philippines is structured only for a privileged few, the hordes of the poor and the downtrodden will always find the kind of journalism Mon Tulfo wears like a badge as their own exemplar.
At the very least, this controversy should be an education for public figures and ordinary citizens alike in what the American philosopher Richard Mouw calls an “uncommon decency.” Such a “convicted civility” is sorely needed in a modernizing society such as ours where, all too often, in the words of the religion scholar Martin Marty, “civil people lack strong convictions and people of strong convictions lack civility.”
This essay first appeared in my column for the Iloilo City-based The News Today.