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As I work in the press, I’m always quick to defend journalists, especially against the stereotype that they “make things up”.
It is true, though, that facts can be shaped to fit an agenda, and also that whenever there are two or more sides to a story, a journalist can take whichever side best fits his remit. But they can’t simply make things up.
For a start, it’s against the law. If a newspaper prints a story about a person or event, and cannot prove that it is true if required to do so, then it will face penalties.
Take, for example, the 2004 case of the Daily Mirror‘s publication of photos which apparently showed British soldiers abusing an Iraqi captive. Desperate for a sensational scoop, The Mirror didn’t check the authenticity of the pictures, which were later proven to be fake. The result – editor Piers Morgan was fired.
So, a publication really can’t “make things up” without risking personal, political or financial repercussions. However, that’s not to say it never happens. While I may be quick to defend the press against this stereotype, at the same time I am quick to criticise journalists who do contribute to it.
Of course, they’re all out for a good story, and they all dream of that sensational scoop. Fair enough. But if it isn’t there, you shouldn’t force it to be there. Don’t create a sensation where one does not exist, and do not add details that don’t exist for the sake of adding character or credence to the story. In other words, don’t make it up.
So, while I’m often quick to defend journalists, by the same token I believe those who are guilty of passing off fantasies as facts, or who use creative licence to such a degree that they are no longer writing non-fiction, should be named and shamed.
By all means have a stance, an agenda. We all have our remits and our biases; this is human nature, as well as the nature of the media. But the points used to engender a stance must at least have grounds in reality, or else you risk damaging your own reputation, as well as that of your employer.
When it comes to sensationalism, Bangkok is an easy target. Even people who have never been here will have their opinions about it, right or wrong, mostly formed from the movies and the lurid tales that their friends bring home from their holidays.
Much of it is exaggerated, but not outrageously so. The real Bangkok is variously exotic, steamy, sexy, dangerous, chaotic, cultured, corrupt. The city’s reputation precedes it, and in many ways it is justified. The possibilities for an investigative journalist are endless.
Which makes it all the more unforgiveable when one writes a piece that is so ludicrously overblown, and in which the “facts” are so easily debunked by anyone with even the most passing experience in Bangkok, that it calls into question whether the writer has even visited the city.
The story in question appears here. Note that is not the work of a ranting blogger or an enthusiastic but undertrained freelancer.
No, it is an article published by Maxim, one of the world’s leading glossy men’s magazines, and attributed to a scribe called Mark Ebner, who, apparently “has been covering crime and Hollywood for 20 years”.
The piece is a follow-up on the shadowy death of David Carradine in a Bangkok hotel room last June. (Unfortunately the article was only recently brought to my attention.) Carradine’s passing, whether suicide, murder, or sex games gone wrong, was the ideal backdrop to a piece of investigative reportage from one of the world’s most infamous sin cities.
It could have been done so well. But Ebner apparently visited a Bangkok that, in cultural terms, hasn’t existed since the 70s, and in geographical terms, doesn’t exist at all! His sense of geography makes you wonder if indeed he’d even physically set foot in the city.
The creative licence used to colour his adventures are so far-fetched that an article with such potential loses all credibility – and even if (and I don’t) that could be justified as merely an application of the art, what can’t be forgiven, especially for such a prestigious magazine, are the atrocious geographical errors which riddle the piece, followed by the downright irresponsible reports of child prostitution.
At best, this writer simply wasn’t paying attention when here. At worst, perhaps Ebner didn’t even travel to Bangkok at all.
You can read the full article at Maxim.Com but for your convenience, here are some selected passages.
… wasn’t it a little too convenient that such a sordid suicide should take place in Bangkok, the sex capital of the world?
Ebner sets out his stall early. Yes, Bangkok has a deserved reputation for its vice, but sex capital of the world? OK, it’s up there in the rankings, for sure, but even within the same country, Pattaya is by far the more notorious, and within the region Phnom Penh is just as infamous, with a darker tone, too.
I’m not saying the writer is essentially wrong in his description of Bangkok – after all, how would you measure such a thing? – but I have the feeling that if Carradine had died in Amsterdam, the same writer would have applied the same label there.
… a teeth-rattling cab ride through the smog-choked, sweltering squalor of metro Bangkok, dodging rickshaws and limbless sidewalk cripples begging for change.
Teeth-rattling? Bangkok’s – and, in fact, most of Thailand’s - roads are flat and paved and have been for some time.
Squalour? Yes, there are slums in Bangkok, but an average crosstown cab ride doesn’t even come close to them. Large parts of Bangkok are modern and well-maintained.
Dodging rickshaws? Rickshaws? Did Ebner board a time machine rather than a commercial airline, and land in Bangkok 1974 rather than Suvarnabhumi Airport? Hands up anyone who’s seen a rickshaw in modern-day Bangkok. Anyone? OK, in the last decade? Two? Anyone at all? Thought so.
Smog, sweltering temperatures and “limbless cripples” (even though that is an excellent example of tautology, and since he says they were on the sidewalk, why was his cab forced to dodge them?), I’ll give him. But already we can see the writer is more concerned with painting an atmosphere to suit the story, rather than “follow in Carradine’s footsteps”, as he claims is his mission.
A vast open-air sex market, the Patpong is a 20-minute walk from the hotel…
Ebner’s description of his adventures in Bangkok’s red light districts are where he really gets lost. “The” Patpong? Nobody calls it “the” Patpong any more than people call London’s red light district “the” Soho.
A “vast, open-air sex market”? Well, I won’t dispute the “sex market” description, but that side of things is far from open-air. Patpong’s sex – and sale of such – goes on behind the doors of bars and massage parlours, not in the street. True, street walkers do ply their trade in Bangkok, but Patpong’s set-up is primarily indoors. There is an open-air market in Patpong, though – only it sells bootlegged clothes and watches, not sex.
Furthermore, to walk from the Nai Lert Park Hotel to Patpong – and good luck with that, given that one thing the author accurately conveys is the city’s heat and humidity – would probably take over an hour, not a mere 20 minutes.
The Patpong is divided into Soi 4, which is predominantly gay; Soi Cowboy, a note-perfect re-creation of pre-Disney Times Square, designed to cater to the Western tourist; and Nana Plaza, which is where they keep the kink.
OK, now he’s really lost me. For a start, Patpong, Soi Cowboy and Nana Plaza are three entirely different, and distinct, places, all separated by distances that require taxi rides or skytrain/subway runs. There’s no possible way anyone could mistake them being one and the same – unless, perhaps, they hadn’t even set foot in Bangkok and research for the article consisted of Googling “Bangkok red light district”?
Finally, is Nana Plaza really where they “keep the kink”? If so, would those in the know care to share this information with me? (We’ll discuss the kickback later.) Because as far as I can tell, all three red light areas offer much the same fare of standard hostess bars and go-go joints. Now, if women dancing in bikinis or fawning over middle-aged men is “the kink”, then so be it, but personally it takes a bit more than that to shock me.
Looking for answers at the dodgy Nana Hotel, I meet a striking-looking child bride…
This is where Ebner goes beyond mere inaccuracy and enters dangerous irresponsibility. In painting his lurid picture of the supposed world’s sex capital, he couldn’t resist throwing into the mix a predictable dose of paedophilia.
Let me make this clear: in almost two years living in Bangkok, not once have I seen anything that even hinted at child prostitution. Unfortunately there was once a time when Thailand was on the map for such things, but like the author’s experiences with rickshaws, that is something that was left behind decades ago.
Now, I’m not naive enough to think it doesn’t happen somewhere, but the point is that the average tourist is not going to walk into one of Bangkok’s most famous and busiest streets and be propositioned by a child, just like that.
I do not spend a lot of time in Patpong, but I have been there enough times to comment on it, and as said, if I haven’t seen such things in my two years here, I very much doubt this writer would have within a day of arrival.
For the record, while prostitution remains technically illegal in Thailand, it is tolerated and well-regimented, and the working girls in the bars are all 20 and older – and have the ID to prove it. It is more than a bar’s business is worth to break such serious laws.
Thailand has worked hard to cast off its reputation as a child sex destination and this article sets back such efforts. If it was an expose, detailing how such practices continue, then it might have had merit, but coming as it does in the midst of an article strewn with inaccuracies and sensationalism, then we have to take it for what it appears to be: rubbish.
…but for 10,000 baht (roughly $300 in U.S. currency) she will come back to my hotel…
At anything from five to 10 times the going rate, this guy’s Googling hit on the wrong info. Unless he really was here, and was quoted that, which I suppose would be possible if he showed as much cluelessness in his interactions as he does in his writing – Bangkok’s ladies of the night can spot a sucker coming a mile off (or even a “20-minute walk” away).
Mr Ebner, come on, this is not rural North Korea or a far-flung Pacific island. You can’t write wildly fanciful things about the capital city of a country which attracts over a million tourists a year and has a population of eight million people, with a large, English-speaking expat population, and expect to get away with it.
Thankfully the comments added to the article call him to task, but so far neither the man himself nor the commissioning magazine have responded.
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