Lessons from the live suicide broadcast
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Lessons from the live suicide broadcast

Police and forensic officers inspect the scene where a lecturer and murder suspect shot himself to death during a standoff on Thursday. (Photo by Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)
Police and forensic officers inspect the scene where a lecturer and murder suspect shot himself to death during a standoff on Thursday. (Photo by Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)

For almost five hours last Thursday, many TV viewers were captivated by the live broadcast of an attempted arrest of a double-murder suspect which tragically ended in his suicide.

The suspect was a lecturer at a local university who, according to eye-witnesses, shot and killed two other lecturers who were his colleagues over a work-related dispute.

Although the self-inflicted gunshot was not captured on screen, this prolonged live broadcast that included the lengthy standoff between the suspect and negotiators -- police, as well as friends and relatives of the suspect -- was enough to put the media under heavy scrutiny.

Apart from direct intervention in the live airing of the standoff, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) on Monday summoned representatives of the four stations that provided continuous broadcast for the entire four-plus hours for questioning with the content board, an advisory body to the broadcasting committee of the NBTC.

Pirongrong Ramasoota teaches and researches on media, communication and society at the Faculty of Communication Arts, Chulalongkorn University.

Questions were given by members of the board to representatives from the stations to respond orally and in writing. The NBTC will continue its investigation into the matter with other stations that were said to have made similar broadcasts, though not to the same extent.

In addition to the NBTC, the larger public also criticised the media heavily over their questionable ethics. Comments bombarding the media were rampant on online social media and online forums.

The main and concurring question raised by the content board as well as members of the public was whether it was necessary to carry out such extensive broadcast and whether the channels were more concerned about boosting their ratings than their social responsibility, particularly associated with airing such sensitive content live.

Thus far, no involved TV station has issued a public apology and they are insisting they were working in the public's interest. The people had the right to know about the incident, they claimed, and they seem to have no qualms over whether such content belongs on TV. In other words, their conscience is clear.

According to a publicly released statement by Nation TV which is one of the stations summoned, the station took necessary precautions during the live broadcast with blurred images and distance shots so as to not undermine the suspect's human dignity and interfere with the negotiators' work.

The commentator, they claimed, was also very careful not to over-excite the audience with their choice of words in the narration.

While none of these stations would publicly admit their decision to broadcast the incident live was related to boosting ratings, the fact remains that these stations are in the second or third tiers of overall ratings of all digital terrestrial television stations. Their advertising rates are significantly lower than those in the top tier or the incumbents in the analogue platform.

So the cost of supplanting usual programmes with such live broadcasts would not be too hefty, particularly considering the increased number of eyeballs.

Another notable fact is that these stations are finding it difficult to make ends meet under the current circumstances, given the steep auction fees they owe the NBTC, operational costs and other expenses. Such footage which makes for gripping television would likely attract a large audience to tune in to see how it ends.

Interestingly, one of the smaller stations which was not summoned in by the NBTC but did provide a live broadcast of the incident put up a caption to invite the audience to live stream the incident on their Facebook page when the broadcast had to be cut short for the national anthem at 6pm and the TV-pooled Moving Forward Thailand programme thereafter.

An executive from one of these stations who wishes to remain anonymous lamented: "We have tried to do good programmes with substance that are publicly beneficial from the beginning. But we could not compete with the usual entertainment blitz like drama series, game shows and singing contests. So when an opportunity such as this dramatic incident arises, there is a reason why we capitalise on it to appeal to viewers."

Apart from the cut-throat competition in digital terrestrial television, the current political situation is said to contribute to the clamour for ratings and the decision to opt for such short-term ratings boosts.

Not only has a significant amount of airtime been taken away by the TV pool for the military regime's programmes but stations are clearly restrained in what they can and cannot say, particularly when it comes to news and current affairs. After two years of such curbs, the climate of TV viewership has also changed, argued another TV executive. Political content and hard news are brushed aside for sensationalism and this is a hard fact facing the budding digital TV industry.

Yet, it would be easy to blame it all on the political context. Thais have always been known for their morbid curiosity, hence the words Thai Moong (gathering to watch accidents or freak events).

Perhaps, it is not only the current context but the overall cultural context of Thai society that is not conducive to promoting respect for human dignity, particularly that of victims and criminal suspects.

And perhaps it is not just the media that needs reform here.

Pirongrong Ramasoota

Chulalongkorn University Professor

Pirongrong Ramasoota, PhD, is a professor of communication at Chulalongkorn University and a senior research fellow at LIRNEasia

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