Guest Column

Thai Media Needs More Soul Searching

By Kavi Chongkittavorn 24 September 2012

When Thai TV news anchor Sorrayuth Suthasanachinda was charged with embezzlement and bribery by the National Anti-Corruption Commission last week, he refused to answer questions from the media or his own colleagues.

Instead, he used his news-hour program the next morning to deny all allegations. Two ethical issues were raised—one has to do with his professionalism, a case of conflict of interest, and the accountability of TV station where he works.

First of all, no journalist with a right mind would use news programs to defend his or her record, especially when the allegation came from the country’s anti-graft agency after nearly five years of judicial process.

If Sorrayuth wants to come clean, he can do it quite easily in a press conference or briefing so that reporters can ask questions as he does in his program. However, he chose the unprofessional way to tell his side of story. His actions brought disgrace to the Thai broadcasting profession.

In addition, what is most intriguing is the attitude of Thai Channel 3, which allowed the news anchor to continue his program the next day as if nothing had happened. Under these circumstances, what the TV station should do is issue a temporary suspension until Sorrayuth successfully defends his alleged wrongdoings in court. After all, that is supposed to be a standard procedure. The station’s recalcitrance demonstrates how commercial interest trumps media accountability and public interest.

As a leading media personality, Sorrayuth’s news program generates big advertising revenue for Channel 3. Any suspension, even temporary, would have a severe impact on earnings. The TV executives fear that if he is off the air, the morning news audience would falter. It would translate into shrinking advertising revenue and lower ratings.

Morning and evening news programs bring in TV stations’ largest chunk of income. At the moment, competition for ratings among the morning news slots is the fiercest within the electronic media. Each program has to come up with new ideas to attract early bird viewers.

Most news anchors now adopt a story-telling style on key news items and sprinkle them with pithy comments and satirical remarks. To lighten up news reporting, Sorrayuth was also among the first anchors to introduce a comedian as part of the team during the broadcast. This formula proved extremely popular and captured a bigger audience for Channel 3.

Meanwhile, the National Press Council of Thailand (NPC) and Thai Broadcasters Association are investigating a group of 39 print and broadcast journalists for professional misconduct. They spent a week under the auspices of the National Assembly’s House Speaker Somsak Kiartsuranand on a so-called study tour of the UK, France and Belgium. As it turned out, it was a fun trip and reportedly cost the Thai taxpayers an estimated seven million baht (US $233,333).

This is not the first time that journalists have been caught red-handed on non-journalistic sojourns. Every year, journalists have joined junkie tours at their own perils. Often their offices are not notified as they are invited as individuals.

It is a well known practice among the country’s MPs and bureaucrats that before the annual budget expires, they plan overseas trips disguised as study or fact-finding tours with “blah-blah” objectives. Paris, London, New York and Tokyo are some of the preferred destinations. For them, it is a must to tag along favored journalists as a form of reward.

Media ethics are not seriously enforced today. The proliferation of digital media, citizen journalists, bloggers, tweeters and social media have also confused the industry about the proper ethics of journalism. So it is understandable that whenever professional media organizations come out with verdicts using peer pressure, journalists do not pay much attention to the recommended sanctions.

Last year, Matichon Group angrily withdrew its membership from the NPC to protest one of its journalists being named in a bribery case. It is interesting to note that mainstream media establishments have been able to make quick adjustments to the new mixed media environment under the Yingluck government, which has been generous in providing large budgets for media publicity of government successes and policy announcements. Advertising and public relations agencies are busy screening favorable media outlets for ad placements.

In more ways than one, Sorrayuth’s case and the media freebies epitomize the overall Thai media malaise. In the former, the news anchor is one of the most powerful news agenda setters inside the country. He knows how to spin news whether it is related to personalities or issues. Like it or not, his views matter.

During the great flood last year, he became the newsmaker himself after going out to help flood victims and his activities were reported for weeks. Nobody questioned him. Some even praised his public service works by raising money for charities and flood victims. That helps explain why he did not feel any shame when he spent over six minutes of his morning program defending the corruption allegation against him.

In a similar vein, some 150 journalists following the Government House and National Assembly beats—the two most sought-after reporting routines—understand their media power well. But only a few dozen would stand out marked for special treatment by the powers-at-be for news scoops, trial balloons and preferential treatment to accompany cabinet leaders during overseas trips.

Since expenses are being paid by the government, press officials often choose who can go. During the first Thaksin administration, only selective friendly journalists were allowed to board Air Force One—the and this practice discontinued after 2006.

Thai media needs more deep soul-searching at this juncture. Within the press community, there is a strong sign of media fatigue and apathy. In the past, journalists were full of zest taking up the watchdog role unwaveringly. These days, the watchdogs are not barking any more.

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.