'Sorry' sight as govt bungles again
To over 1,000 staff of iTV, the decision to take the station off the air means an uncertain future.
PM Surayud Chulanont with PM’s Office Minister Khunying Dhipawadee Meksawan
To 130 producers, it means the loss of money spent on programmes shot in advance, as well as the loss of incoming advertising revenue.
To the public, it means the loss of in-depth news reporting that other TV channels cannot offer.
Sadly, the most tragic impact will be on the Surayud government, which has once again shown its lack of competence in handling big issues.
The decision to take iTV off the air came as a big surprise as most people expected the station to continue broadcasting, despite the operating company being stripped of its operating licence.
In January, Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont himself announced the channel would not be taken off the air no matter what happened regarding the concession. That announcement came as an assurance to the staff, producers and the public that the channel would continue broadcasting as usual, no matter who owned the station. As the promise came from the prime minister himself, it was supposed to carry significant weight.
Even last week, when the Cabinet approved the revocation of the concession if iTV could not pay its outstanding concession fee of Bt2.2 billion, there was no talk of closure. The idea was floated only at the weekend by PM's Office Minister, Khunying Dhipawadee Meksawan.
Yesterday, staff and producers were still hopeful that the shut-down would not happen, as Surayud - before entering the Cabinet meeting room to decide if the closure was necessary - promised he would carefully weigh the issue. In the end, everyone was disappointed when Dhipawadee announced that iTV would be taken off the air at midnight. Then, Surayud came out to face iTV staff and producers, who had gathered in front of the Government House, and apologised for not being able to keep his word.
He insisted he must abide by the rule of law. Still, that insistence does not erase the fact that legal talks could have taken place and the issue been resolved long before the day of reckoning.
The plan to revoke the broadcasting concession was first mooted late last year when it looked certain the channel would face huge penalties - of over Bt100 billion - and it would be unable to pay.
Now, that time has come, and it is evident the government is poorly equipped and ill-prepared to take the next steps in handling iTV.
Despite having months to prepare, the Cabinet only approved the revocation last week.
Then, the PM's Office started talking about having MCOT run iTV. While MCOT acting president Pongsak Phayakvichien said that could be done - now that MCOT is still majority-owned by the Finance Ministry and maintains quasi state-enterprise status - most of MCOT's directors were absent from the board meeting last weekend to approve the management contract.
Then, yesterday, Dhipawadee named the Public Relations Department as the future operator of iTV. However, the PRD can only take over operations when the Council of State guarantees that such an arrangement does not violate broadcasting law. The answer will possibly come on Friday.
It was a surprise that talks and legal reviews did not take place long before the revocation, to pave the way for assets seizure and operations takeover immediately after the station was taken over by the state. Considering the performance of the government in the past five months, this is not surprising, though.
A comparable case relates to the government's decision to reopen Don Muang Airport. Once Airports of Thailand had announced the plan, Transport Minister Theera Haocharoen objected strongly. Only a week after that, the Cabinet approved the reopening. The Cabinet also surprised many with the plan to reopen the old airport for both domestic and international flights, while AOT had targeted only domestic flights.
The Cabinet highlighted a number of reasons why both domestic and international flights should move back to Don Muang, only to backtrack when faced with strong opposition from international airlines.
While claiming that Don Muang must be reopened because of construction faults and congestion at Suvarnabhumi Airport, the government has done little to solve those same problems at Suvarnabhumi. Worse, when AOT chairman Saprang Kalayanamitr was caught red-handed taking relatives to Germany on a business trip at the expense of AOT, the government kept its mouth shut. Hopefully, that silence wasn't because Saprang was an important figure in the Council for National Security, which installed the government.
Another example of the government's incompetence can be seen in its failure to push through a law to legitimise the 2- and 3-digit lotteries. It is not the government's fault for failing to convince the National Legislative Assembly to agree to the proposal, but the government should have foreseen that without the law, the lotteries could not be issued. Consequently, the fund that provides scholarships to a large number of students wouldn't have dried up. What to do with those students now?
Surayud should be commended for his apology for not being able to keep his word. But he should not forget that he could have done better by having responsible ministers consider all options and their impact. Somehow, in the case of iTV, that was not the case.
If this government's approach doesn't change, it is certain that Surayud will have to apologise again and again - until the day his administration ends its term in disgrace.