October 2006
Voyeurs and Exhibitionists
First Person


Using deception to get at the truth

Howie Severino

AS A teenage prankster with a high voice, I once called up an earnest classmate and pretended I was a girl, a sweetly flirtatious chick (yes, we still used that word back then) our class had just met at one of the dimly lit soirees we used to have with girls’ schools. It was not a great mimicry but it worked, my friend’s gullibility enhanced by roused testosterone. We spoke for over an hour, trading gossip and shy compliments.

My classmate — let’s call him Jimmy — was not very experienced in the female department and had never had a serious girlfriend. But he was as horny as the rest of us, so he was obviously thrilled by the first call he had ever received from a coquettish colegiala. Recorded in another classmate’s home through a patched extension phone, the conversation elicited restrained guffaws among other classmates in an adjoining room.

The next day, someone brought the tape to class and played it for everyone’s entertainment during recess time. Everyone that is, except for Jimmy, who came over to the boom box to find out what the mirthful fuss was about. It took him about five seconds to realize that we were all listening to his nervous, flattered, and highly embarrassing voice. Then he chased me around the classroom as his face turned a brownish red.

That incident became entrenched in our class’s folklore, repeated to much laughter whenever we get together in groups of more than two.

With the hindsight of over 25 years and a long career in journalism, I recall that the dialogue also revealed naked truths: the range of teenage corniness, angst, and tart observations about other boys and girls that is transmitted between teens the world over during getting-to-know-you calls like that. Anyone of us could have sounded like Jimmy. But no one else would admit it.

JOURNALISTS, VOYEURS, and teenage eavesdroppers all have this zealous desire to know: What is this other person really like when he thinks no one else is listening? My mischievous classmates and I did find that out about Jimmy, but probably made some self-discoveries as well.

The stakes are higher of course if the person eavesdropped on is a she and the president of the land. The Garci tapes, recorded surreptitiously in still-unknown circumstances, uncovered naked truths that were impossible to attain any other way. Shortly after the tapes exploded in the media landscape, my colleagues and I had a conversation with one of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s men. Instead of addressing any of the president’s statements on the tapes, he kept steering the discussion back to the legality and ethics of secret recordings, as if that was a much more important issue than election cheating and political legitimacy. But considering that he had given up challenging the authenticity of the president’s voice, one can’t blame him.

These arguments can boil down to that eternal question: Does the end justify the means? Sometimes the law will decide for you; some means are just plain illegal. But many situations are trickier. Take for instance the cajoling we journalists have to employ to convince potential subjects to cooperate – to be interviewed, featured, or otherwise enable us public explainers to do our jobs. I don’t think any journalist can tell you that in the process of convincing a controversial subject, the entire truth about his motives was revealed, as in, “Please allow yourself to be interviewed so I can trap you with a series of questions that could incriminate you in front of the whole country.”

Thus, years ago, the New Yorker magazine writer Janet Malcolm made that now-famous assertion about every journalist being “a kind of confidence man… gaining trust and betraying without remorse.”

The ultimate con is the hidden camera, which is rolling in situations where subjects have the full confidence to go about normal questionable activities. It still escapes me how wiretapping is illegal, yet hidden cameras, which capture both sound and images, are not. There are ethical issues, but journalists can brush these aside with claims of public interest or national significance. I myself have used hidden cameras to record children buying Rugby glue from clerks in hardware stores and tattooed shabu addicts donating blood at commercial blood banks. Among many other exposes, my colleagues at “Imbestigador,” a TV investigative-news show, have secretly recorded a military officer sexually propositioning new recruits and policemen snorting confiscated shabu. I have also carried around cameras pretending they’re not rolling when in fact they are, a technique I learned from a favorite cameraman, who occasionally interprets “no shooting” warnings to mean “shoot at all cost.” But of course, all for the public interest, whatever that may end up being.

SO IT came to be that this confidence man took a cab conveniently parked in front of my office. The driver possessed a large nose, big glasses, and the kind of thick Tagalog accent one usually associates with Leo Martinez characters in sitcoms. The driver seemed to recognize me from the rearview mirror and immediately started up a conversation. Oh no, I told myself, another talk-filled ride when I’d rather be alone with my thoughts. But TV is like politics — as every stranger is a potential vote, he is also a potential viewer of my show. So any last hopes for solitude went out the window.

“‘Di ba artista ka (Aren’t you in showbiz)?” the driver asked. I laughed, before he blurted out his punchline, “Sa Star Stroke?” Ooh, very funny.

Then he said he saw a recent documentary I did on humpback whales. Oh a late-night viewer, our constituency. I suddenly paid closer attention. Then he dropped his first bombshell: “Alam mo, ang sarap ng lasa ng balyena (You know, whales are delicious).”

“Hah, saan ka na nakatikim (where did you get to taste one)?” I replied.

“Sa probinsiya pa (In the province).”

“Anong lasa (What did it taste like)?”

“Parang baboy (Like pork).”

This conversation went on about the various endangered animals he had devoured in his lifetime, including breast of eagle that he said was available in Arranque Market, which is notorious for selling wild-game meat.

By this time, I was getting increasingly shocked at the gall of this man who seemed to know about my work as an environmental journalist. But I kept mental notes about the sources of his rare diet, for possible future investigation. He seemed delighted to be catering to my curiosity.

It was a short ride. When we got to my destination, he found a place to park and, strangely enough, got out himself. As I exited his cab, he took off his exaggerated nose to reveal his true identity: the comedian and impersonator Michael V! Directly behind, a van that had apparently been following us also parked. A cameraman got out to record my flustered reaction. Michael V’s long-time collaborator, director Uro dela Cruz, was not far behind; he shook my hand as he stepped up.

An assistant then asked me to sign a waiver, giving the TV show “Bitoy’s Funniest Videos” permission to use the recording from a hidden camera inside the cab.

I signed. How could I not, after years of secretly recording others without even a thought of getting them to sign a waiver? And Michael V at least voluntarily revealed his identity right at the end of the con, something I could not do for my high school chum Jimmy, who never did get a chance to exact revenge.

Except maybe through my total trust in a fake taxi-driving carnivore.

As a GMA7 reporter known for shooting his own video, Howie Severino usually uses cameras that are not hidden.