UPDATE: Response from British journalist Jonathan Miller has been added to the story.
BANGKOK — Thai journalists struggled Monday to make sense of how a foreign correspondent managed to have an impromptu interview with His Majesty the King – an unthinkable act for many local media.
King Vajiralongkorn was asked by British journalist Jonathan Miller what he thought of the demands for monarchy reforms pushed forward by the pro-democracy movement. The interview aired on CNN and Channel 4.
The brief encounter is puzzling for many Thai reporters, since media coverage of royal events is strictly regulated by the palace authorities. Photographers are discouraged from taking close-up shots of the monarch. They must also bow when the Royal Family members walk past. Firing questions at them is out of the question.
Khaosod veteran photographer Seri Phuangsali said the impromptu interview was never seen before throughout his 29 years in the career.
“I think it’s exactly because he was a foreigner, that’s why he wasn’t blocked from getting so close,” said of Miller. “[For a Thai reporter], that would be very hard, because it’s never been done before.”
Seri, who’s covered numerous royal ceremonies and appearances, said the palace usually allows photographers to take photos only from designated spots. Although reporters can generally take photos of the Royal Family when they are outside palace grounds from any angle, they could never get a close-up photo.
“I always have to use a wide angle lens,” he said.
The strange setting led some netizens to suspect the conversation between Miller and the King might have been staged, but the journalist himself said that was not the case.
“It was not authorised but foreign media were invited by PRD [Public Relations Department] to attend the event,” Miller said. “My team and I intended to attempt an interview but what happened was entirely spontaneous.”
“Reaction? I sensed that Buddha Issara was not best pleased but there was no immediate adverse reaction.”
Miller and a cameraman approached King Vajiralongkorn for his comments on the protests while His Majesty the King and other members of the Royal Family were greeting a crowd of supporters who gathered in front of the Grand Palace on Sunday night.
Peerawat Chotithummo, president of the Thai Broadcast Journalists Association, said he believed the news agency Miller worked for was authorized to bring in a camera and other equipment, since it was “impossible to sneak” items of that size in without approval.
He said Miller was perhaps on the ground to cover the crowd of supporters welcoming His Majesty the King, and then took his chance to throw questions at the monarch when he was close by.
“Nowadays, news reporting is more relaxed. Normal people are taking clips when greeting the king,” Peerawat said. “For that international reporter, they were reporting on the people coming to greet the king, when at that moment he was able to ask his questions.”
Police spokesman Kissana Pattanacharoen declined to comment on royal security protocol. He said it is the responsibility of the palace’s Aide-De-Camp Department.
Thai news channels usually use feed from the Television Pool of Thailand to report on royal news and the monarchy’s activities.
TV Pool was founded in 1968 to give live coverage on important events, mostly involving the Royal Family, the government, and state agencies. In one day, Channel 7 might provide TV pool footage for other channels to use, while on another day Channel 3 might be the one providing the footage.
Photographers and news cameramen who are present at those events are routinely required to check in their equipment beforehand.
When asked if Thai reporters would be able to lob questions at the monarch like Miller did, Peerawat from the broadcasting association said, “There is no law about that, but we have procedures when reporting on royal news.”
Seri, the Khaosod photographer, also said he noticed the palace has somewhat eased its regulations to allow for closer royal interaction with members of the public and the media.
In the past, the crowds wishing to greet His Majesty the King and Royal Family members were expected to keep their heads down and refrain from taking photos when they walked past.
But when Their Majesties the King and Queen made their appearance on Sunday, scores of people were apparently permitted to take photos and even selfies with them without intervention from the authorities. The brief interview might be seen as proof of the relaxed atmosphere.
“His Majesty the King has been closely greeting citizens in a close manner, and the photos taken of the event show that,” Seri said.
‘Land of Compromise’
In the interview, Miller had asked His Majesty the King, “These people love you. But what do you say to the protesters who’ve been on the streets who want reform?”
“I have no comment,” he replied. “We love them all the same. We love them all the same. We love them all the same.”
“Is there any room for compromise, sir?” Miller said.
“Thailand is the land of compromise,” the king said.
The king, Queen Suthida, and Princess Sirivannavari then crossed the road to greet supporters on another side. Channel 4 said that the king and princess had an “intense and animated discussion about what’s just happened.” Then, the princess approached Miller to give a comment.
“We love Thai people, no matter what. And this country is peaceful. I love it. I’m very happy. This is the real love. And you can see, right?” she said.
King Rama X has been greeting royalist supporters up-close in recent days. On Oct. 23, the King personally praised a man who confronted the pro-reform protesters by holding up a portrait of the late King Bhumibol, saying he was “very brave.”