No stars in gunman saga 'reality show'

No stars in gunman saga 'reality show'

For hours, the drama no one should have been watching played out on live TV, and even became a product for social media. (Retouched photo by Thiti Wannamontha)
For hours, the drama no one should have been watching played out on live TV, and even became a product for social media. (Retouched photo by Thiti Wannamontha)

'You are the star," said Christof to Truman Burbank in the 1998 American satirical comedy-drama hit film The Truman Show. Jim Carrey stars as Truman, a man whose whole life in a constructed reality is broadcast 24/7 to billions of people around the world. "You were real. That's what made you so good to watch."

This is around the end of the film when Christof, the creator of the reality TV show, tries to convince Truman not leave a giant film set built under a giant arcological dome where for the past 30 years he had previously thought was his real hometown and that everything -- his parents, his wife, his best friend, and people in town -- was real.

It was The Truman Show all over again, with the comedy aspect of it stripped away, when last Thursday a number of TV stations broadcast live marathon negotiations between police and university lecturer and double-murder suspect Wanchai Danaitamonut, who was pointing a gun at his head, to give in. He later shot himself dead.

There could have been millions of people tuned in that afternoon to watch the distressed and fragile 60-year-old lecturer as police and relatives pleaded with him to put the gun down. On its Facebook site, Thai Rath newspaper streamed the event live and the link to the video is still up for viewing, gaining almost 500,000 views and having been shared over 2,000 times so far.

Kaona Pongpipat is a writer for Life section of the Bangkok Post.

In short, Wanchai was a star of sorts. The difference with the film is it wasn't a reality show within a film but a real tragedy of a man in his last moments. He was even more real than Truman and, consequently, even better to watch. Re-watching The Truman Show after this tragic event, the film has never been sadder, and we realise comedy actually makes up a tiny part of it. After Wanchai's suicide, we have seen an outpouring of heartfelt sympathy toward the deceased's family and friends. This collective compassion is laudable, yet the incident illustrates the unpleasant side of our society.

The obvious issue is, of course, the ethics of the media in a prolonged broadcast of an event that ended in bloodshed. The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) has summoned the TV stations involved in the live broadcast, as it says it could be regarded as an act undermining law and order, breaching the broadcasting law.

But whether these TV stations will be punished or not is hardly worth speculating on. This is one example of many such cases in which the media displays violence, with no consideration for privacy and human rights, to boost sales or ratings. We see every day, whether in newspapers or on TV, ghastly murders or car crash scenes presented on the pretense of their being cautionary tales, and we are meant to be roused and simultaneously relieved because the victims are not our families and friends.

Truman's whole life, from the moment of his birth, is essentially a commercial product. While walking to work every day he would be greeted by passers-by and pinned to the wall next to an advertising poster for the reality show audience to see, or his wife would suddenly, in the middle of a fight, present him -- a commercial for the audience at home -- with a new brand of cocoa beans.

Wanchai's case was worse than that, and the live broadcast was not only an opportunistic but also a heartless marketing ploy, unless these TV stations can justify broadcasting a man holding a gun to his head for hours as serving the public interest.

In The Truman Show, from time to time, we are taken to see the audience who are supporting Truman in front of the TV. During the long intense hours before Wanchai finally shot himself, we prayed everything would turn out OK. In both cases, feeling sympathetic while watching the character was perhaps not the right way of expressing sympathy.

The fact is we shouldn't be watching it at all. With social media, we have long become, not just a passive audience, but active content generators ourselves. With social media and phone cameras, the realities of others' lives can be turned into mere "products" on our platform with just the flick of a finger.

At the end of The Truman Show, before stepping through the exit door and into the real world, Truman delivers once again his catchphrase and one of the film's best-loved lines: "In case I don't see you ... good afternoon, good evening, and good night".

I do hope it's a good night for Wanchai in the sense that his suffering is now over, yet it was still a nightmare for his family, who now know tragedy was broadcast live like a reality TV show. At the very least, they deserve an apology, and not just from the media.


Kaona Pongpipat is a writer for Life section of the Bangkok Post.

Kaona Pongpipat

Writer for the Life section

Kaona Pongpipat is a writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.

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