A peek at what's been going on at Channel 9 shows how politics affects the broadcast media / Before he quit, M R Pridiyathorn was under much pressure from vested-interest people / It looks like the Ministry of Social Development is shifting out of 'neutral gear'
Political manipulation of the broadcast media is probably here to stay, considering what is happening at Channel 9, run by MCOT Plc.
Channel 9, or Modernine, is in fact where the battle for control over the country took place on the night of the coup on Sept 19, 2006.
Deposed caretaker prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra attempted to declare a state of emergency from New York via the station after failing to secure access from the TV pool. Minutes after the broadcast, he was cut off.
The station has made a number of changes following the coup.
Several programmes and hosts believed to have had close ties with the former administration have been removed, while media personalities who were axed for being critical of the Thaksin government have been put back.
The Khui Khui Khao news programme by celebrated host Sorayuth Sutthasanachinda was among the first to go. His company, Rai Som Co, is under investigation for alleged irregularities in the payment of advertising income.
Among the newcomers are Seri Wongmontha and Boonyod Sukthintai - both of whom were regulars at anti-Thaksin rallies organised by the People's Alliance for Democracy.
Assoc Prof Seri, who was approached to undertake "pro-active" public relations for the government, has been allocated a time-slot from 11am-11.30am which he shares with Mr Boonyod as host of Pong Pak Pood programme.
Mr Boonyod, sacked from Channel 3 for criticising Mr Thaksin, uses his time-slot to produce the Sapha Prachachon programme.
The producers of the programmes pay 40,000 baht per day to MCOT for the half-hour airtime - regardless of their advertising revenue.
Modernine's content committee reviews the programmes every three months, which allows the station to pull the plug on non-profitable programmes and make room for producers who have the money or know the right people.
Recently the committee reportedly decided to axe a programme produced by former senator Nitiphum Navarat.
Mr Nitiphum, aThai Rath daily columnist, refused to be cowed and claimed his programme still enjoyed good ratings. He promised to go on a roadshow if his programme was pulled off the air. Probably threatened by Mr Nitiphum's fans who are scattered across the country, the MCOT has renewed his contract.
Following the coup, MCOT has also formed several committees to investigate irregularities in the station.
MCOT is believed to fork out about 900,000 baht a month to cover meeting allowances for committee members who are mainly outsiders.
What is happening at Modernine is nothing new, and it will come full circle again when there is a shift in power.
Quitting to keep one's dignity
Friends knew well that M R Pridiyathorn Devakula would certainly retaliate against Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont's appointment of Somkid Jatusripitak, who was the economic engineer of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, to be the government's international spokesman on sufficiency economy because that really upset him.
But they did not know that his response would be to resign as deputy prime minister and finance minister at the end of last month.
M R Pridiyathorn had prepared his resignation beforehand and was waiting for the right time to submit it. The right time came, thanks to the Yam Fao Paendin (Guardian of the Nation) talk show which was aired on the government-run TV channel 11, which is under the supervision of PM's Office Minister Thirapat Serirangsan.
The host, Sondhi Limthongkul, at that time criticised M R Pridiyathorn heavily.
During a meal with the prime minister at his official residence at Ban Phitsanulok on Feb 26, a member of the National Legislative Assembly's coordination committee asked the PM to review the programme. The NLA member warned that criticising a cabinet minister on a government-run channel could pose problems.
Gen Surayud agreed and asked for a week to do something. Then Mr Sondhi abruptly terminated the broadcasting of his programme on the channel and M R Pridiyathorn announced his resignation on Feb 28.
Mr Sondhi's show was only a catalyst for M R Pridiyathorn's resignation. It was not the main reason behind the decision.
As a matter of fact, M R Pridiyathorn was upset by a key figure on the Council for National Security who asked the then finance minister to sell a portion of shares in IRPC Plc, formerly known as Thai Petrochemical Industry (TPI), back to a former shareholder.
The Finance Ministry is the major shareholder of IRPC and M R Pridiyathorn did not respond to the request. He stood firm that the favour could damage the national interest.
Moreover, a telecommunications tycoon was pressuring M R Pridiyathorn, in his capacity as deputy prime minister supervising the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, for vested interest related to a telephone network connection.
M R Pridiyathorn also ignored the approach. He resigned to let Prime Minister Surayud shoulder these problems himself and this was his way of hitting back.
Ministry all set for moving ahead
Against all odds, the cabinet has given the post of deputy prime minister to Social Development and Human Security Minister Paiboon Wattanasiritham, who has been criticised by the public as "being in neutral gear" for his "under-the-radar" performance.
Mr Paiboon, who will be in charge of social policy, will help Gen Surayud Chulanont work with provincial villagers and translate the principle of sufficiency economy into action.
Last year, Mr Paiboon took off as a rising star in Gen Surayud's cabinet line-up. He has decades of experience in social work and won the approval of non-governmental organisations, which are usually at odds with the government.
He was quick to disappear from the front pages of the newspapers. Reporters are said to have had a hard time covering his abstract vision even it was very well thought-out.
The public thus has little knowledge as to what the minister is working on or has accomplished.
Along with Mr Paiboon's recent promotion, Poldet Pinprateep, secretary-general to Mr Paiboon, has been named deputy minister for social development and human security.
The move has allowed the media to breathe a sign of relief.
Dr Poldet has been the ministry's only mouthpiece. He knows how to present the media with concrete information about the details and progress of Mr Paiboon's missions.
All reporters unanimously agree that: "Mr Paiboon is a good man, nice and well-liked. But when it comes to information and story, we must turn to Dr Poldet."
Dr Poldet is among the former October students who made their name fighting military dictators.
His impressive CV includes various development and academic work. He recently won praise for a study on the impact of the village fund and the campaign to instil democratic spirit among youth.
With Mr Paiboon overseeing policies and Dr Poldet realising them, the Social Development and Human Security Ministry is set to achieve the cabinet's goal to lay the groundwork for democracy and the sufficiency economy.
Then the phrase "neutral gear" will no longer be attached to the ministry or to Mr Paiboon.