One of the stories behind the story of the 13 boys in the cave is how a very strenuous effort was made to control the story. I have been fascinated to watch this story behind the story unfold.
The story of the boys in the cave we can call the MAIN STORY. It had phases including: (1) 10 days of mystery, “Where are the boys?” (2) “They are alive!” Days of agony about whether they can be gotten out of the cave still alive. (3) Rescue operation: 4 boys on Sunday, 4 more on Monday, the final 4 and the coach on Tuesday.
The main story had a life of its own. There was, from hour to hour, no telling what would happen. It was a live drama with an unpredictable outcome. The whole picture, like articles in a Zen garden, could not all be seen from any one perspective. Some key perspectives had no observers, and therefore no narrators, at all. But there were many narrators with priorities, pressures, and principles that were not necessarily internally coherent or consistent with other narrators and actors (to use a script metaphor).
Governor Narongsak was the administrative head of Chiang Rai Province when the main story began. He became the chief administrator of the search and rescue effort going on in his jurisdiction. As it happened he had been scheduled for a sideways transfer to a smaller province. It is rumored this was in retaliation for his refusal to cooperate with higher officials in matters involving a lot of obscure actions and money. However, he was retained in charge of the search and rescue; therefore, he was also the most important narrator of the main story.
The other major narrators of the unfolding story, of course, were reporters for TV networks and newspaper syndicates. There were scores of them. As the days went on, the 13 boys in the flooded cave became one of the top stories of the day and then of the year. The story stole headlines from world leaders and from the World Cup, the most watched sports event of our generation. The boys in the cave were also a soccer squad and they became the most famous juvenile soccer team in history. The 13 boys became the top story and on the front page in every country on earth.
For most of the narrators who made this happen, the pressure was immense to get a narrative together to be ready when the red light came on and they were “live from Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai, Thailand.” Gold stars were awarded for a story fragment that could rate a headline that began “Breaking News”.
At the other end of the funnel were consumers of the stories. Mostly we had one consolidated question at a time. “Will the boys be found?” “Will they be gotten out alive?” But as the main story grabbed near universal attention, we became narrators, too. We talked about what was going on and we put our thoughts into words, pictures and emoticons on the Internet. Our chatter sometimes became so intense or so interesting that it had an impact on the content of the round-the-clock flood of stories coming from inside and outside the cave and filtered through the news-desks in front of big cave maps or that picture of the trapped boys.
Some actors were not narrators. The cave rescue volunteers from Derbyshire, the medical doctor who went to live with the boys on their sand shelf, the boys themselves, and most of the thousands of volunteers and military who just worked hard, manned the pumps, directed traffic and became part of the story. They were not trying to tell the story but to do their job.
For most of the two weeks the boys had been in the cave and the week they had been big news, Governor Narongsak was a helpful, mild-mannered announcer, as far as his role as narrator was concerned. Off camera he was an actor-director, ordering and authorizing mountains of pipes and thousands of people. He was also the gate-keeper to the cave. He let in the actors and it was his role as director that shaped the rescue mission into the most international operation in Thailand since the refugee crisis 40 years ago. He had to negotiate his nations defensiveness that it is shameful to let foreigners become saviors. He also deftly handled the rich and powerful who wanted 15 seconds of fame or a little prop for their tilting political reputations.
But on Saturday he took charge of the narrative. All the reporters and their camera crews were moved away from the cave. They left protesting and dragging their feet, but they moved to a new location out of the way of what was going on in and around the cave. Big screens were put up at key points, blocking views. Security was stepped up dramatically. News media were not allowed within 200 meters of some sites. Pages of regulations were distributed. Roads were blocked by manned police barricades.
The story that the story was being controlled then threatened to become the main story. Paparazzi-type strategies were undertaken by some desperate or hopeful international reporters. They were penalized for flying their drone and trying to eavesdrop on police radio conversations. Like flying ants after the first monsoon rain, conspiracy plots were imagined and dire motives flew into every narrative from the cave that day.
It was not a good day. A volunteer diver ran out of oxygen delivering tanks under water and died. Oxygen in the cavern where boys were staying was found to be down by a quarter of normal. Pumping operations were slower than needed. Governor Narongsak was welcomed to his new job in the neighboring province, but then showed up again as director of the operations, minus the title of Governor of Chiang Rai. Rain was returning and the weather was ominous. The main story was pessimistic and turning sour. Seeking scapegoats was coming next if the “worst case scenario” played out as expected.
Governor Narongsak shifted from being announcer to being director. In that way he could partially control the narrative. The Governor said each day’s plan was reviewed and revised according to advice from his team of experts. They had a plan and they were going to do the plan, and revise it if necessary. “I’ll tell you what we’re doing,” he said. But I watched him doing a Cecil B. DeMills directing job with the story. In the calm aftermath of the rescue of the Wild Boar football squad from the bowels of the gigantic sleeping woman (as is the name of the mountain and the legend that goes with it), I have some suggestions about why the Governor did that.
The fact is that narratives can do damage and story-tellers (be they reporters or studio commentators, religious pundits, or family members) may neither realize nor care about the destruction. Reporters were here from more than a dozen countries, each one hoping to get the scoop, the award winning picture, or the angle that captured attention. That was their priority. There were millions of amateurs on-line too (I being one of them) who had different reasons for punching our keyboards and copying and pasting whatever attracted us.
It occurs to me that it is important to consider why some narratives should be controlled and why others should not be. When stories are being blocked in order to protect powerful people from the consequences of their misconduct, that is abuse of power. When stories are being controlled in order to protect those who are endangered or vulnerable from further damage, despite pressure to give narrators freedom, that is courageous of the gate-keeper.
I am willing to give the Governor credit for trying to prevent as much destructive narrative as possible. Bit by bit, as the main story seems to have ended miraculously well, we are piecing together some of the information that the Governor was getting on his frequent strategy meetings with experts in as many relevant fields as they could think of.
He heard that the boys will need to be protected from medical trouble because a couple of them have pneumonia, they are malnourished, they have vulnerable vision due to weeks in darkness, and there is likelihood of post-traumatic stress disorder that would be made worse by letting reporters get to them.
It is unsure that any of the media-control had to do with what would happen if they could not bring out some of the boys alive. Horrifying images would haunt families for generations. There would be a frantic scramble to fix blame.
Coach Eak was already being set up to be vilified. One narrative still online tells the terrifying legends of the demons and giants represented in the mountains and cave and weaves in the story of Coach Eak sending the boys in, as he had done in the past, to toughen them up. There were calls in the press for him to be charged with malfeasance and endangering the children. That was a powerful lesson, actually. Parents rushed to defend him, swearing he was a good guy who was trapped with the boys. The narrative now is that Coach Eak is the reason the boys are alive because he helped them move farther and farther to safety, and when they became stranded he kept them alive by giving up his own food and then teaching them to meditate to quell their panic. This very skill is how they managed to negotiate the escape route.
When the former Navy Seal, Saman, died trying to assist in the rescue, he was doing just exactly what the boys would have to do if they were to come out before re-flooding began after any new rain. Saman’s story, naturally, was kept from the boys. The boy’s families heard of Saman’s death as a sober notice about why the boys weren’t just being brought out straightaway.
What is sure is that some of the blockades the Governor imposed did not really have as much to do with safety as with controlling the narrative to keep it in bounds. Governor Narongsak showed again he is an accomplished director, unlike some of his contemporaries who insist on being stars with the narrative wrapped around them. Nevertheless, Narongsak is now listed by the media who hated him a week ago as one of the heroes of the main story of the year. He is being honored and his fame far outshines what’s-his-name, the boss who transferred him to little Payao Province.
There is danger when the press is controlled. But there is also danger when stories run wild and so do the story gatherers.
We have not forgotten how Princess Diana died in a tunnel 20 years, 11 months and two weeks ago.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.