Last Tuesday, in his final outing as prime minister in front of the Bangkok-based diplomatic corps at the Foreign Ministry, he boasted shamelessly of his diplomatic role in helping Western diplomats and workers from international organisations obtain entry to Burma, saying he knew the junta leaders personally. While he reiterated that he would stay on to protect Thai democracy, he was still willing to ignore the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi and her democratic aspirations. In front of those diplomats, he appeared indestructible, talking endlessly about his role as Asean chair and upcoming summit meetings. Again, he surprised diplomats by singing portions of traditional Thai songs, which immediately overshadowed his lecture on Asean in that evening's news reports.
These were but a few typical exchanges out of hundreds since February that have shown the scope of Samak's ability to meddle with and spin the media. No other leader in Thai political history has engaged and divided the media in such a manic way as Samak has done, not even Thaksin Shinawatra, who was considered the country's foremost spin-doctor.
Every time Samak lashed out and intimidated reporters, he generated more news about himself. He also adroitly used his culinary skills and personal interests as tools to soften his image and get more publicity both at home and abroad. The veteran politician was too confident of his media and political acumen to pay any attention to legal matters, which eventually brought him down. As Thais would say, Samak was "the shark that died in shallow water".
Over the past seven months, Samak drove a wedge between himself and the media community, calling journalists liars out to destroy him. While he attacked Asia Satellite TV (ASTV) for biased reporting, he praised the government-run NBT for its "truthful" programmes. The way Samak sees it, information that comes from him and government agencies is truthful and represents the nation's best interests, the rest is coloured and not newsworthy. He thought mistakenly that his repeated complaints of media bias would eventually undermine private media outlets.
Samak was so obsessed with ASTV's anti-government programmes and personal attacks that he thought the Thai media were monolithic and one-sided. During his tenure, he literally did everything in his power to promote NBT as ASTV's rival and the channel the public must watch. As a former journalist he should have known that as far as news and information are concerned, NBT's public standing and creditability are still very low despite its recent facelifts.
In more ways than one, the battle of ideas between ASTV and NBT has epitomised the polarisation of Thai media outlets - a major theme since 2001 - due to the enormous attention given to TV broadcasts, which remain the main source of information for the Thai people. After Thaksin took over the premiership, he changed the country's television culture completely. He staged his government's works around TV cameras.
Samak has adopted Thaksin's style. Under his tutelage, broadcast news became king. If an event was not shown on TV, it did not happen. Given the current political circumstances, NBT and rival ASTV have dominated the airwaves and undoubtedly attracted stronger audiences, with their news commentaries by TV personalities and pundits. Each channel has its own circle of celebrity journalists and commentators. Due to their frank talk filled with twists and diatribes, they have in their own unique way generated loyal followers who are like hardcore football fans.
Fortunately, the Thai media landscape today encompasses more than just the ASTV-NBT tug-of-war. It is very diverse and dynamic, comprising all forms of traditional and new media, both mainstream and alternative, which are vying for audiences that are younger and more cosmopolitan. Thai media is a big bowl of salad, sometimes with more lettuce leaves, carrot slices or tomato cubes, but never with all ingredients in equal measure. No media outlet acts in concert with others in reporting day-to-day events, as Samak and his supporters want us to believe.
Each media outlet has developed its own niche. For instance, 24-hour cable news channels have become more sophisticated and comprehensive with their coverage. Alternative media, including online news agencies and community radio stations, are publishing and broadcasting up-to-date information, which used to be the mainstream media's turf. Since 2003, they have successfully challenged the so-called elitist views of major media establishments with non-conformist views that are more sceptical. Mass-circulation papers still maintain their best-selling formats undisturbed by these new challenges.
One caveat is in order. Thai society still lacks the tolerance needed to deal with the different ideas generated by all forms of media. We tend to ignore the reality that when readers pick particular newspapers or viewers watch certain TV channels, they do it according to their preconceived political sentiments and cultural preferences. With an increasing number of available news sources, Thais today are getting unfamiliar news and information, which some of them immediately label as biased. To truly build a democratic and open society in Thailand, we need to accept and live with different views, no matter how opinionated or absurd they may seem to be.