Guest Column

Save the Country: Tell No 'White Lies'

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 27 August 2012

Kudos must go to Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Kittiratt Na Ranong for being the first minister to tell the truth to the Thai people when he admitted that he had told “white lies” to instill confidence in the country’s economic growth.

If Plato were alive today, he would praise Kittiratt for his sheer courage. To the Greek philosopher, the minister is telling “noble lies”—at least that is what the minister thought at that particular moment—to make the country feel good, if only temporarily. Indeed, by coming out first, he is saving the Yingluck government from collapse, as he is preparing for the “true lies” that will gradually emerge in the near future. Over the weekend, the government played up its accomplishments of the past year with much fanfare, as befits the populist government. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was all but beaming.

The message is clear: it is a noble cause to help the poor, whether the help is real or imaginary. So never mind the white lies—just keep telling them. Nobody can argue with well-intentioned lies. The public will come to expect nothing less, and will believe that they are all the straight truth. Anyone who criticizes the government for this is biased and dislikes the poor.

One can also venture to say that it is not only Kittiratt who is practicing such an ancient oratorical skill. The whole Cabinet has been rather bald-faced in giving information not corresponding to reality. It is true that one can lie sometimes, but one can’t do it all the time—not even Joseph Goebbels would believe that. Truth be told, the Yingluck government has used all available strategies to manage information, including news spins and comprehensive publicity campaigns to create the continued illusion that all is fine with the country, as long as the people have money to spend, at least for now.

The American linguist, Noam Chomsky, should have conducted his research in Thailand, as he would have found plenty of cases of “manufacturing consent.”

That is why it is very intriguing to watch how the mainstream print media and those on the fringe, especially popular ones such as Matichon and Thai Rath, have treated the story of white lies. They did not scrutinize the story as deeply as they should or used to do. In the past, the vernacular press was normally very vigorous in checking the performance of the government. Their acerbic columnists  routinely took governments to task, but this time around, they have played down the controversy as if it were a small news headline, hiding among other news of the day. Somehow their powerful columnists felt that the topic should not be highlighted as it might harm the public’s confidence and most importantly, play into the hands of opposition groups, in particular the Democrat Party. Indeed, the latter has become the most cited reason that reporters and other stakeholders give for not digging more deeply into controversies related to the government.

Meanwhile, other small papers like the Thai Post and Naewna have gone ballistic detailing comments from all concerned parties, especially the opposition party. The English-language press has been consistent in reporting the country’s economic woes throughout the past 12 months, so Kittiratt’s confession came as no real surprise. They have reported domestic statistics as well as those from  abroad, and have sought the views of businessmen and investors. As usual, the six Chinese-language dailies continue to be outside the loop, reporting domestic and economic news as if they were bulletin items in a broadsheet noticeboard.

These days, Thai TV and radio is a different media instrument altogether, with huge revenue from advertising from the private and public sectors. No media outlets want to jeopardize the status quo. Turning a blind eye on controversial issues is a virtue today. Therefore, they are treating news with less serious intent than they did in the past, when they focused on the public good and interests. Some of the most viewed news programs on the tube are those with news reporting in story-telling style, with puns and accompanying comedians. News as entertainment is epidemic among the electronic media. Thanks to the government’s huge public relations budget, the media industry is very thriving.

To be fair, Thai PBS, which is funded by the people’s taxes, stands out, as it presented the “white lies” story as it should—as the lead on Thursday’s evening news and again on Friday. Other channels did not pay much attention, just briefly carrying the news in their evening broadcasts, without showing Kittiratt actually saying the words. This has now become quite a common practice in news broadcasting. Whenever necessary, comments by certain newsmakers from the government are deleted and replaced by impromptu comments by the news anchors of the day.

In March, there was a similar incident about lying which the Thai media failed to seize upon. This was the government’s continued denial that Thaksin Shinawatra had met with Muslim separatists in Malaysia, even though there was photo evidence that the meeting—which was widely reported in Malaysia’s Chinese media—actually took place. However, in Thailand, the concerned authorities, including the Pheu Thai Party members and Thaksin’s aides, all came out in force to dispute the report. Miraculously, the Thai media, both electronic and print, did not follow through. There were no fact checks whatsoever. Up until today, the public still thinks the meeting did not take place and was merely the opposition’s propaganda ploy.

The best way to manage the “white lies” syndrome is quite simple: the government must tell the truth, and nothing but the truth. Obviously, it is hard to believe that Kittiratt’s action was without the consent of his colleagues—after all, he was considered one of their top brains. It will be painful for the Yingluck government to tell the people that its economic targets cannot be met in the months to come. But the government has the responsibility to tell it like it is. This will improve the government’s credibility in the public eye and in the international community. The toll on the country as a whole will be lessened. Playing with economic figures is considered a crime in many countries. Many failed states went through this process before. This government with the majority in the Parliament is not likely to face a similar situation. Therefore, it is time for the government to bare all and refute the practice of telling white lies.

This article first appeared in the Bangkok-based The Nation newspaper. Kavi Chongkittavorn is assistant group editor of Nation Media Group and his views do not necessarily reflect those of The Irrawaddy.