Airing new agendas

The new head of Thai PBS discusses the fine line the channel must tread, producing provocative and informative programmes while striving to be socially inclusive and politically impartial

The 27-rai compound of low-rise, industrial-chic grey buildings on Vibhavadi Rangsit Road is a picture of calm authority. Nearly 900 people work here in the offices, studios and control rooms of the country's only public television station, the non-profit, four-and-a-half-year-old, largely admired if sometimes embattled TV Thai, better known as Thai PBS.

Come tomorrow, Somchai Suwanban will officially take the helm of the station whose HD signal aspires to beam out alternatives to the glut of heavily commercialised channels on the one hand and colour-coded mouthpieces on the other. The new director still has to wait for the administrative dust to settle _ there's been a lot of speculation about reshuffles and new appointments _ but he seems full of zeal as he shares his views on the current state of the media scene, political interference, freedom of speech and the question of neutrality, a barbed issue at a time when proving you're occupying the middle ground is much harder than producing a megahit programme.

"We're not just a television station, we're public-service media," says Somchai, 61. "One of the characteristics of Thai media is the fact that politicians and people in power can dictate news agendas. The headline news is set by a few groups of people. But what we do is try to shift the balance of power of information so that the people, the citizens, can set their own news agendas, too.

"We see politicians and men with a lot of money owning TV channels and we're trapped on an uneven playing field. That's destructive. They can control opinions and television is used to attack the other side. We need strong public media to function as a forum, a level playing field, where current affairs and public policies [from the rice-pledging scheme to nuclear power] can be debated fairly and openly. That's what we are doing."

A former journalist, long-time head of the BBC Thai News Service and a TV Thai board member even before he applied for and landed the post of director, Somchai is driving the most testing vehicle in the current media rally.

Under its first boss, Thepchai Yong, TV Thai, whose annual 2 billion baht budget comes entirely from excise revenue, created a base for itself by providing socially conscious programming, cultural features, community-based messages and news services. It came across as meatier than the profit-hungry channels and both smarter and friendlier than professorial, state-run television.

Over the next four years, Somchai will have to work in an environment where the unstoppable surge of technology and new media continue to test the social and political influences of traditional broadcasters, while national politics, the public mood, our place within the Asean context and audience perceptions will all be pressing factors for this rather young channel.

"I see TV Thai as a new media _ not in the sense of platform, but in terms of content and direction _ as opposed to the old media operated under market mechanisms," says Somchai, who speaks in the clear, uncluttered sentences of a former newsreader. "We're funded by taxpayers' money and we're not pressured by audience ratings. In this paradigm, the evaluation of our success and failure is different from other channels. We can't be measured by numbers or ratings. The indicators should be the impact that we have on the viewers and the possible changes that our programmes can bring about in society.

"For instance, we have a programme called Blind Date [in which celebrities are asked to spend one day with a blind person]. Normally a hit programme on a commercial channel might have one or two million viewers; Blind Date may have only 50,000 or 100,000. But if the show can get viewers to reflect on the issues of disability and equality, then it's a success. An episode of Blind Date costs no more than 50,000 baht [to produce]; that means one baht per viewer from the tax money. So the cost is low."

Promoting what Somchai terms "public values" and well-informed democracy come high on the station's mission statement. The challenge seems to lie in pushing substantial content in a way that makes it appealing to viewers, the majority of whom are familiar with television as a medium of lightweight entertainment or ideological confirmation. In the past four years, TV Thai has aired several programmes that take that challenge on board, such as the news/talk show Tob Jote or the travelogue/arts feature Nang Pa Pai. An Audience Council made up of 21 groups _ from gay/lesbian rights advocates, HIV activists and women's committees to environmental NGOs and representatives of handicapped people _ monitors content and supplies feedback to the director in order to ensure that the station represents all viewpoints. The idea of public participation and a citizen-based news agenda are reflected in programmes that allow villagers to have their say, plus a new feature in which homeless children produce episodes based on their own life stories.

Somchai's goal is to make TV Thai a model for other PBS services in Asean to emulate. A plan to add English-language programmes is in place, as is diversification to radio and the web. Myanmar, in its gradual opening up, is sending a team to observe and learn from the Thai station. Somchai also speaks glowingly of the BBC, his employer for more than 20 years, and NHK, the Japanese public TV station.

"We should aim to be able to export our content like those channels do."

But, in common with other tax-funded agencies, TV Thai has its critics and sometimes finds itself in political crossfires.

The channel was established in January 2008 as a result of a media-reform bill passed into law by coupmaker-appointed legislators. The history of this piece of legislation goes back much farther, though, to pressure exerted by civic groups and widespread demands for a truly free press after the Black May incident of 1992 which saw iron-fisted control of the media being enforced. The law that gave birth to the station, Somchai says, ''is the most radical and liberal in [our] history and, paradoxically, came from a non-democratic parliament''.

In the four years it's been broadcasting, TV Thai has had to defend itself from both sides of the political divide. When Arisman Pongruangrong, a red-shirt firebrand, stormed a Pattaya hotel which was hosting an Apec meeting, the station was accused of repeatedly replaying images of that melee in order to cast the protestors in a negative light.

When Yingluck Shinawatra won the election last year and the host of a TV Thai news programme flew to Dubai to interview her brother, Thaksin, the assault, predictably enough, came from the other camp. Even the station's reporting of last year's flood was politicised by detractors.

''Neutrality is hard to prove, but impartiality is not. We promote a diversity of views and we work hard to achieve a balance,'' Somchai states. ''In the case of Arisman, we were the only channel to invite him to speak about the Pattaya incident. You have to look at the whole channel, but sometimes it's the perception of people who only watch one thing and not the rest that we're not being fair.

''Political interference does exist, but it comes more subtly and at a lower level now. I can assure you that, when I was a board member of TV Thai, there were never any phone calls from politicians [telling us what to do or what not to do]. Never!

''There are other ways in which they exert their influences; for instance, one of our on-location programmes went to Mae Moh [site of a lignite mine in Lampang] and the host praised the air quality, saying how how clean and clear it was, and that was an improbable thing to say because Mae Moh was where a dispute was going on about the pollution from a coal mine.

''We made an inquiry and dealt with it. On Satanee Prachachon [People's Station], we were once criticised for letting the ministers speak at length but only giving representatives from the labour unions only a few minutes. It happened, yes, but it was logistic unpreparedness since the labour group arrived very late.

''And some critics think we have a massive budget at 2 billion baht,'' Somchai adds. ''But if you look at the budget for government PR offices, it's much, much higher.''

In an era when the average householder can access a few hundred TV channels, as various dishes suck signals from countless sources, television is at its most democratic _ and most anarchic.

The sheer volume of verbiage, delivered by politicians, celebrities and other dominant voices on air, is dizzying, even confusing; and that's not to mention the mountain of words carried on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other new media.

Somchai is taking the wheel at TV Thai in a very different environment than that which prevailed when the station was born; this is a time when everybody can be heard when they want to be, a time when a short video made in one corner of the globe can spark a riot in another.

''In a democratic society, freedom of speech is most important,'' Somchai observes. ''But sometimes we're confused. There ought not to be freedom of hate speech, or freedom to mislead and manipulate. Today, there are several groups who don't understand journalism, but have jumped into the media ring with political agendas. These groups claim freedom of speech, but it is not journalism.''

About the author

Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Deputy Life Editor