The BBC dancing with the junta

PPT has posted on stories about the BBC and its dance with Thailand’s dictators. There were the lese majeste rattlings, then Jatuphat Boonpattaraksa’s fit-up lese majeste case for reposting a BBC Thai story that has now been was read by more than three million people. And who can forget the “failed” negotiations on the transmitter.

The Bangkok Post reports that the dictator’s dance has become a little more complicated, requiring what we hope is fancy footwork.

The Post reports that the Beeb “is ready to move forward as a digital news content provider in Thailand and it is also ready to adjust its work culture to suit Thai laws and audiences…”. That’s Francesca Unsworth, “director of the BBC World Service Group and the BBC’s deputy director of news and current affairs…”.

Sounds like self-censorship is the next dictator’s waltz. But then she adds: “But we still need to serve all audiences in a way that we feel they are best served. We have to find a balanced operating environment.”

A two-step? Unsworth had one dance with with deputy junta spokesman Lt. Gen. Werechon Sukhondhapatipak. He spun her around with talk of the “lessons arising from incidents that prove sensitive for Thais…”.

To be honest, we have no idea what he’s babbling about, but when he states: “I think we can form common ground where we can work together,” anyone interested in the BBC and a free media should be very, very worried.

The General stated: “We now have communication channels through which [the BBC] can verify or check comments from the government so the stories will be balanced and well-rounded.”

Really? That sound dangerously like manipulating the news to suit a military dictatorship. Would the BBC stoop to such low levels? Well, yes, it has bent to governments in the past, but usually prides itself on editorial independence. Fortunately, Unsworth “insisted the BBC team would stick to its strong editorial values to tell the truth accurately, impartially and reporting from all sides.”

At the same time, Unsworth twirled around the BBC as business conundrum: “It [Thai market] is important to us. It’s a big country, it’s a very vibrant country. It’s a young country and they say the 21st Century belongs to Asia. So it is important for us to be in Asian markets…”. We can hear the self-censors and corporate bosses sharpening their scissors to cut content when markets are “threatened.”

When Unsworth says that “Thailand already have very lively local media scenes in newspaper, broadcasting and increasingly in digital space,” you have to wonder which Thailand she is in and which band she’s listening to.

Hopefully the BBC two-step is a way of allowing the dictators to save face and that adequate to good journalism will be the BBC’s future when reporting on Thailand, including reporting on lese majeste, the monarch and the monarchy.

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