This elephant in the newsroom
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This elephant in the newsroom

The case of popular news talk show host Sorayuth Suthassanachinda and the embezzlement accusation against him looks to be a very big elephant in the newsroom.

A former reporter, Sorayuth has mastered the "new media" art of retelling news from different sources to television audiences so well that he is reportedly making 1 million baht a day from his news programmes on Channel 3.

According to Isra News Centre, his two companies, which he established with a registered capital of 1 million baht each, have turned over a profit of more than 1 billion baht over the eight years since their establishment.

Was Sorayuth being accused of embezzlement an inevitable story? I believe it was. The talk show host is so popular _ and was especially so during last year's Bangkok floods when he was seen to be out and about giving help to the public _ that he is sometimes dubbed "Thailand's TV Premier".

His influence over the general public is immense. What he chooses to talk about in his morning news programmes usually end up being the talk of the town. It would be no exaggeration that for certain groups of Thai people, the trust they have for "Hia Sor", as he is affectionately known, is more than what they can spare for their ministers.

While Sorayuth being accused by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) of embezzling money from state-owned Mcot Plc while he was hired to produce news programmes there, caused quite a stir among media professionals, critical news stories about the case have been sparse in the mainstream media.

Reactions from the two main industry groups are also interesting stories in themselves.

Both the Thai Journalists Association (TJA) and the Press Council stopped short of calling for Sorayuth to resign. In their statements, issued about two weeks after the NACC's indictment, they only called for the news anchor to "consider himself".

Sorayuth's response _ a resignation with immediate effect from the TJA, where he has held membership for more than 10 years _ was a throw-back for the groups to "consider themselves".

Another organisation to have joined the fray was the Anti-Corruption Network, comprising more than 40 companies which profess to adhere to "good governance".

The network called on its members to strike where it hurts most, by cutting their advertising spending on Sorayuth's programme and Channel 3.

The result? The silence from most major companies and conglomerates that belong to the Anti-Corruption Network has been deafening. Of the few that were reported to have shown interest, none have committed to the boycott strategy.

Meanwhile, Sorayuth's news programme remains on air and is seemingly as popular as ever, unaffected financially or ratings-wise by questions about the news anchor's ethics.

The latest move is by the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission, whose members said the agency would not weigh in on the issue as it is an ethical "grey" area.

At this point, it seems the issue has reached a standstill, where everyone is eyeing each other and wondering: Who will dare cast the first stone?

I believe, however, that there are other, broader questions this case has raised that are far more important than the fate of Sorayuth or what will happen to his trend-setting news programmes. Chief among them is whether the press can "self-regulate" or not in this age of "the daily me" and "broadcast yourself", when everyone can act like a reporter and when ethics seem far less crucial to the media's survival than popularity with "the masses".

Also, while Sorayuth may be a high-profile figure whose behaviour and ethical standards will naturally be subject to more scrutiny than others, it would be unfair for the graft-busters to single him out and ignore the possibility that the embezzlement he is accused of does not occur anywhere in the mass media.

It's true the case of Sorayuth is a major controversy, one that will no doubt test the ability of the press to control themselves and the public's tolerance of corruption. But it shouldn't be used to mask the biggest elephant that has occupied many newsrooms, without anyone wanting to point it out.

Atiya Achakulwisut is Deputy Editor, Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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