Songpol Ruengsamut couldn’t take it anymore. The head photographer and reporter for Amarin TV had watched uncomfortably as his outlet spun story after story elevating a man from potential murder suspect into a media superstar.
Last week, he’d finally had enough. Two days after Amarin wrote a glowing account of the celebrity murder suspect going into a studio to record a famous song, he resigned. To make his point, he publicly announced it and apologized for his small role in a made-for-clicks saga that has inflamed sentiments that the media has abandoned any pretense of ethics.
“We have presented things way too far from how it was supposed to be and exploited this story for those who seek benefit from it,” he said of his resignation after six years with the cable news station. “We want social attention and just want viewership, likes and shares.”
Yet the story shows no sign of slowing. Just the other night, a Daily News headline heralded the man known as “Uncle Pon” singing with a country star in Prachinburi province: Fans cheer Uncle Pon at a concert singing showdown with Ying Lee.
Shameless sell-outs who’ve abandoned any ethics or concern for right or wrong? Songpol said he’s heard it all – and agrees.
His decision to leave was a rare voice of dissent from inside the media machine which has for much of the pandemic working to make a folk hero of Chaipol Vipra, a likely suspect in the unsolved death of a 3-year-old girl in the far northeastern province of Mukdahan.
In May, Orawan “Chompoo” Wongsricha was found dead without her clothes in the woods 5 kilometers from her family home in the Ban Kok Kok community. Chaipol, aka Uncle Pon, quickly became a prime suspect based on suspicions of the girl’s mother.
But three autopsies failed to confirm a cause of death, meaning there was no murder to investigate. Her body was cremated. The case remains unsolved.
While Chaipol’s alibi that day has been less than reliable, two things are for sure: Chompoo’s death has brought great fortune to the unemployed occasional rubber tapper, and his celebrity ascension has eclipsed the unsolved question of how she died.
Within four months, his home had become a tourist attraction. He was soon singing and dancing alongside famed singer Jintara Poonlarp in a music video for country song Tao Ngoi. He started appearing at entertainment events. He opened a YouTube channel that within weeks has garnered nearly 6 million views and 220,000 subscribers.
Earlier this month, he was on hand at a Toyota launch event where he was promised THB1,000 for each Yaris sold this month.
None of this would have been possible without breathless daily coverage. To feed the click beast, newsrooms hunting for content have resorted to comparing his looks to leading man Theeradej Wongpuapan based on a single random Facebook comment. One report showing him with his new car was shared 71 times.
A Star is Born
It’s a phenomenon with a long tradition in the media, according to Thammasat University literature professor Maytawee Holasut. He cited a long history of shows in which the media raises up “lucky” members of the working class – and scores points for making it happen.
Maytawee recalled a program from his youth in which ordinary people talked about their dreams and hardships in exchange for cash. Its laundry detergent sponsor would pop up with the slogan: “We Support Every Dream.”
“Then there was also the documentary program Khon Khon Khon (People Discovering People) that interviewed marginalized people and framed content in the same way with the concept that ‘Your story is valuable,’” he said.
While reality show-style coverage is nothing new – see February’s Korat mass shooting, 2018’s cave rescue, the Murder Babes saga of 2017 – Maytawee said one big difference is that reporters and the public are directly involved in this “interactive” story, comparing Chaipol to a Twitch streamer soliciting donations and subscribers.
He said reporters know what they are doing is unethical, but, like struggling media around the world; they’ve gone off the cliff creating spectacle to chase shares and likes in hope they translate into elusive revenue.
Media revenues in Thailand collapsed about five years ago. Newspapers folded or were acquired as everything moved online and expensive gambles on digital platforms failed. Chompoo’s death came several weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, which dried up what trickle of advertising remained.
With advertisers, businesses and the media sliding into hard times along with people nationwide, Uncle Pon’s redemption arc came along at the right time.
And one act of protest isn’t going to make a dent. Songpol’s resignation was barely noticed while a story about Chaipol and his wife endorsing a beauty brand went big the next day.
But while many seem unable to get enough of Uncle Pon, others are enraged by it.
Through memes, critics have mocked things like the product endorsements.
At the time Songpol resigned, #BanUnclePon was trending atop Thai twitter. But the photographer said people must go further and “#BantheSystem.”
He dismissed excuses that the media is just giving people what they want or, even more favorably, harmlessly helping someone attain a better life.
“No, it’s not that,” Songpol said. “It’s all for our benefit. Accept that we are an important variable, and the ones who began all this distortion.”
Reached for comment, Songpol declined to speak to a reporter. But his resignation prompted at least one other to follow suit when Sakda Wannasut also announced via social media he was also quitting Amarin, where he had been covering the Chompoo case.
He said the intense pressure and intolerance for any dissent or disagreement had made him question himself and the job, especially when he had to venture into deeply personal territory for new scoops.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate, even if some people consent to give it to us,” Sakda said. “I want to ask what viewers could possibly gain except to watch a family feud.”
Speaking to Coconuts Bangkok after he resigned, Sakda said he understands that news agencies are businesses, but believes they can serve people enough of what they want for reasonable ratings and still create beneficial content.
“But we are little people,” he said. “It’s hard to create change, so I decided to quit for my own peace of mind.”
Sakda said he would have never believed the story of Uncle Pon would become what it did. He said that if those wanting to refocus the media must begin at its roots.
“The organization responsible should be strict and pressure news agencies to contribute useful content to the public and not just think about the money.”
Adchara Panthanuwong, a journalism professor at Thammasat University, said the public must make consequences to pressure the media to change its ways.
“We can see from the Nation boycott case how much pressure it can put on a channel and its partners,” she said of the protest movement’s call to boycott the pro-establishment outlet’s advertisers. “Each had to issue a statement.”
Whatever Chaipol did or didn’t do, she said the public should hate the game and not the player.
“While Choompoo is an obvious victim, we can say that Uncle Pon is also a victim in this case,” she said, noting that in the heroes-villains narrative shared by lakorn TV dramas and tabloid news alike, he is a relatable protagonist in a climate of crushing social inequality.
And those eating up the story are simply following similar dramatic beats.
“When the media shifted its focus to report on his living conditions, and people saw how poor he was, it was easy to get public sympathy,” she added.
Additional writing and reporting Todd Ruiz