This issue of
Citylife

The Horror

The morning stroll to work, under the canopy of fruit trees fragmenting a perfect azure sky, squirrels above me doing the high wire dash, sunshine smacking down on the street, the merry cobbler busy at work looks up and says sawasdee as he always does. The office garden is sparkling, still not dried off from the heavy rains during the night, while the staff are sitting picnic style around dishes of spiced pork and . . . chemically treated chicken’s feet chatting about . . .

The body that was found last night in the Canal . . . photos of the dredged student are already common stock in the catacombs of Hotmail.

So I walk upstairs and pick up the ‘paper to find a lurid shot of a cyclist partly crushed under a truck wheel, opposite him, on the same page, lies an old man in bed whose cancerous face looks like swollen shredded meat; his loyal wife sits at his bedside.

“James, have you seen this video?” says the Thai editor. He sends me a link. I expect a song, or a goal, or even a bikini, but I should know better. It’s a foreign man who has committed suicide by jumping from a billboard in Chiang Mai. As he lands, a crowd of patient onlookers rush in to video his pulped face and limp body, there’s quite a commotion as they push each other round vying for the best shot of this sad scene. The local TV cameras have all the best angles, later tonight we’ll be able to see the whole bloody ‘event’ on three channels. A pall of violence has infected my morning, for the rest of the day there will be blood at the back of my mind. The Thai editor tells me he receives various ‘faces of death’ videos and pictures almost every day from friends. He says, “James, it’s normal.” He is right. Many mornings he helps me to read the Thai daily newspaper and if the cops haven’t managed to bag a couple of bruised hilltribers for driving their contraband around, then more often than not the front page will boast a graphic shot of a burst head, a stabbed gik, the broken legs of an elderly lady or, on those unusual and particularly foul days when the streets don’t provide the newspapers with a satisfactory spillage of human viscera, we might just get a close up of a mouthy dog on a spike.

Then there are the forwarded emails I sometimes receive into my inbox of doom: a set of photos, ominously displayed for chronological scrolling of a once happy infant all the way down to a car crash victim melted to near shapelessness; another repeat inbox offender is the almost-mythical Thai baby that was born with scales on its face, both of these stock-shock spams are followed by a threat that I must further disseminate this message. Post disaster, Tsunami, Santika, or grotesque viewer friendly rarities such as severed heads hanging from Bangkok bridges, and my inbox could be a feeding trough of ideas for any discerning director of horror films. Even the Marquis de Sade’s ‘120 Days of Sodom’ is tame compared to the reckless terror of the internet or the reliably sadistic, ‘365 Days of the Thai Rath’.

Having a hankering for horror, or harbouring a blood fetish is by no means Thai, though it seems in Thailand ‘the horror’ runs a bit wild. The West won’t put up with mutilated corpses in newspapers, and the casual voyeur of a suicide on the streets of London might think twice before rushing in to video the wreckage. Though the millions of YouTube hits for the Quebecois man whose chainsaw disemboweled him, or the pet snake eating an Australian Alsatian, might be indicative of the international news media not really understanding the primal ‘wants and needs’ of its readership. That, or they are constrained by irksome ‘ethics’. In Thailand, seeing an image such as David Carradine’s auto-asphyxiated dead body hanging from a doorframe in a Bangkok hotel is by no means unusual, though shortly after the Thai Rath had exposed the actor’s secrets to the world his family members were reported to being lost for – all but a couple of – words: “profoundly disturbed”. What was to gain from seeing Carradine’s body? ‘Each to his own’, as people are fond of saying in defense of peculiarity. And I’m referring to the consumer, not the perpetrator. Perhaps we’re a bit soft in the West, notwithstanding the months of replayed ‘man jumping from Twin Tower’, or the agony and ecstasy of a firework display as American troops condemn Iraq and its families to the rubble. Maybe it’s the close-up we’re not so keen on, whereas in Thailand the close-up (in some papers) is the money shot.

A group of ajarn from six Thai universities are steadfastly opposed to vivid media carnage and have campaigned against certain ‘news’ publishers in Thailand. Professor Yubol Benjarongkij, dean of the communication arts department at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, told me “I absolutely do not think it is ethical to show ‘horror’ pictures, I do not think people should see all those images often posed on the front page of Thai daily newspapers. This is the topic that many of our colleagues here at Chulalongkorn University and journalism professors from others schools have been trying to say to the newspaper community in Thailand all along.” She explained it was not just pictures of gore she and her group are campaigning against but also “images of crime victims dead or alive, should be hidden from readers to protect their privacy and sometimes their safety.” She explains that some scholars are worried about the effect of exposure, that readers might get used to it so that they see violence and crime as normal incidents, adding that “newspaper reporters I had talked to seemed to agree with this, though there are still some who work with popular newspapers who believe that readers like to see it and they do a good job in informing and warning people in the society about crime.” Her campaign two years ago did not change the status quo, and rather than cut off the supply, her group now focus more on the demand. “The best we can do now is telling everybody to stop buying those newspapers,” she says.

In an attempt to understand the supply/demand of gore news in Thailand I contacted Sunanta Yamthap, head of the journalism and print media in the faculty of mass communication, Chiang Mai University. She explained something about the ten commandments of the “newsworthy” elements of journalism: Sex, Suspense, Conflict, Consequence, Proximity, Prominence, Emotion/Human interest, Oddity, Immediacy and Advancement. “In Thailand,” she says “like many other countries in the world, newspapers may be roughly divided into two categories, quality and quantity newspapers. If you are looking at the quality newspapers, they would aim to publish news with quality. They would focus more on events that emphasise on consequence or impact to help improve the society rather than sex or prominence or emotion or oddity.”

As to the issue of ‘horror’ she explains that a horrific image could be said to encompass elements of emotion, human interest, sex and perhaps suspense and oddity. “They are easily consumed and digested. You will find that the media tend to be so eager to publish the ‘horror pictures’ to convey their stories rather than some paragraphs of text. I don’t think this occurs only in Thailand, it occurs everywhere in the world. Some photographers and/or editors may fight so hard in their minds as to whether the pictures should be published or not, weighing the pros and cons considering a code of conduct – whether it has an impact and helps society in the end or not. But some may not give this a second thought, they just think ‘will it sell?'”

One might accuse the Thai Rath of summarily executing unethical pictures into their content pages. Though if the consumer demands boobs, blood and trite defamation, then what can news producers do? Sell the people what they don’t want? Sunanta adds, “Many times we found them going too far on their coverage of tragedy, the victims, the murders, the accidents, etc. The Thai Journalists Association, National Press Council of Thailand and etc. have launched statements asking their members to be strict to their code of ethics. Examples of cases are the Tsunami, the victims in the fire at Santika pub, and the case of Mr. Carradine recently.”

She explains that there are too many horrific pictures in Thai newspapers today, saying that “I think one of the problems here is that many of the Thai readers have been non-active for so long. They do not show their needs. They tend to say ‘mai pen rai – never mind’ to what can be considered as violating their rights/ offensive to their eyes/ disturbing their peace of mind. When no one says otherwise, the media, journalists, newspapermen, soap opera producers may have their own views of what the audience like and stick with such thoughts. Thus, we can still witness such photos from the media . . . I would like to think that this is getting better. The media becomes more and more aware of the problems as there are growing groups of people organisations, associations who show their concerns.”

Though the question still remains: What does the consumer really want? There’s no doubt that the image of the dead man that sits next to my coffee mug right now is ‘disturbing’ ‘offensive’ and has in some way violated my ‘peace of mind’, I would have rather not seen it, and it’s doubtful the deceased’s family or friends would want to see it. Perhaps this kind of unfazed journalism is merely an incantation of the town square flogging, or the always popular public hanging, the answer to a blood lust that can both insult our ‘civilised’ consciences but also remind us we are in a way triumphantly alive. Unfortunately there’s not enough word space, or enough time in the world for that matter, to find out what people really want to see. And would you believe them anyway?