Media interference | 27.03.06

One year ago, on March 23, 2005, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra announced his policies in the parliament’s first session after winning the election by the largest margin in Thailand’s history, shattering his own previous record.

The next morning, the Bangkok Post lead headline read “Thaksin’s vision ‘out of touch’”.

Bangkok Post: March 24, 2005

The Post was quoting Opposition Leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, whose party was so in touch with reality that it had fallen 50% short of its election target.

The off-lead headline read “Chuwit: Policy paper full of lies”. Chuwit Kamolvisit was a rookie parliamentarian who made his fortune in the “massage parlor” business and became a household name when a band of thugs obliterated bars and shops that refused to move out of his company’s property. The constitutional court would later find his MP candidacy invalid and remove him from the post.

As the headlines suggest, Who Says What, as opposed to the Five Ws, is the cornerstone of Thai journalism. Of the lead story’s 26 sentences, twenty have “said”, “told”, “vowed”, “doubted”, and the like as their main verbs, five are indirect quotes, and one is a segue.

Here’s a breakdown of the Who part according to allotted newsprint:

Bangkok Post front page: “Who” analysis

The coverage of Mr. Thaksin’s policy declaration is colored blue; that of Mr. Abhisit’s response speech, red. The pink spaces belong to several other Democrat MPs. Mr. Chuwit gets the orange-tinted off-lead all to himself. And the yellow part is a courtesy call to Mr. Suriyasai Katasila, secretary general of the self-styled Campaign for Popular Democracy®. Obviously, Mr. Suriyasai had been yakking with the big boys long before his outfit co-opted Sondhi Limthongkul’s disciples and upgraded itself to People’s Alliance for Democracy™. (“Outside the parliament, Mr Abhisit’s comments were echoed by …” went the segue.)

So, excluding headlines and photos, the policy speech by the overwhelmingly-elected leader got less than half as many column-inches as the response from the opposition leader. Indeed, Mr. Suriyasai and the “other” Democrats together easily outsize the PM’s puny coverage.

The picture is even more dramatic if we, knowing the who, divide the coverage into “government content” and “anti-government content”.

Bangkok Post front page: “What” analysis

But wait, although the picture on the right is of Mr. Thaksin, it is by no means there for his benefits. Looking weary and bored (just as I would be if I had to endure two hours and ten minutes of Mr. Abhisit’s blather), the prime minister literally sat in stark contrast with the standing, poised, and resolute-looking opposition leader on the left. Seeing these photos, one would be inclined to agree with the latter that the former is out of touch. Of course, one would have to ignore that Mr. Abhisit was talking about a rather different kind of “out of touch” — “seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses” and all that — but that’s easy enough to do, especially when longtime exposure to the Post has killed half of your brain cells already.

Accordingly revised, our graphic becomes:

Bangkok Post front page: “What” analysis revised

Stunning, isn’t it? But that was a year ago, long before a series of scandals turned the paper against the government.

Remember, too, that most other newspapers are not as keen about the Thaksin government as the Post. Its English-language rival, The Nation, has been rather more lukewarm from the beginning, and founder Suthichai Yoon’s new gigs on the state-run Modern Nine television have not mitigated its, um, lukewarmness. (There are state-run channels and there are state-run channels. Modern Nine ranks second out of five in terms of state involvement.)

And although The Nation has been called the “most outspoken” or “most independent” newspaper by observers who can only read English, Thai-language newspapers such as Naew Na and Thai Post and now Manager are so lukewarm that The Nation and the Post seem hot for Mr. Thaksin by comparison. And we have yet to mention various websites and radio stations, both licensed and “community”, which can be jaw-droppingly… lukewarm.

All of which may just be what Prime Minister Thaksin had in mind when he told his supporters at the March 3 rally:

They say I interfere with the media. Let me ask you, who do the media lambaste the most? I got interfered with by the media, brothers and sisters!

And the interference shows no sign of abating.

update Some information on Mr. Chuwit was added later.

00:27 ▪ media, politics

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1
poststaffer 27.03.06

So much for the public’s right to know what Thaksin says. So much for balance. So much for the newspaper’s reputation as a journal of record (as opposed to a mere scandal sheet).

Darling, we’ve been there, done that. Time to take a few scalps.

Except we haven’t actually been there, done that. Readers are still waiting for journalists to get over themselves, and simply report the news.

However, Thailand does have a version of the 5Ws…don’t be misled. As a Canadian friend, senior journalist and fellow staff member at the Post says – it’s who, who, who, who and who.

2
Tom Vamvanij 27.03.06

Post Staffer:

Ah, your old Canadian colleague. Bless his soul. It only seems like yesterday when he recommended my old blog to the man who would become my most loyal, if unpredictable, reader.

3
poststaffer 27.03.06

The same man, Alan Dawson, appears in your old blog, in response to a piece you wrote on the 50th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, and the fact that it passed unremarked by the Thai media.

I liked what he said:

The service of the Thai military in the Korean war, and thus the Thai nation, is a great achievement, in my opinion, one of the great and honorable and clear stands against tyranny by Thai people. In its way it is purer than the World War II Seri Thai because it was service for others (South Koreans) and not directly for Thais. It is unsullied by political and sneering charges that sometimes demean the Thai service in Vietnam (twice as large as Korea, in manpower).

Yet it went totally unmarked by the Thai media and public so far as I could see, even though wire service stories from Seoul and Panmunjom specifically mentioned Thailand and pointed even the dimmest editors at a “home town” story. Very strange to me.

4
JW 27.03.06

Tom

Great post. I must say I have become rather partial to ThaiDay recently. I don’t agree with everything they say, but they seem more consistent than either the Post or The Nation in their reporting.

BTW, the links for “new gigs” and “most outspoken” are broken.

5
Tom Vamvanij 27.03.06

Thanks, JW. The links are fixed.