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14 Mar 2006

the perils of the front page

Alex Au asks if The New Paper was being irresponsibly homophobic in its exclusive coverage of a raid on a gay drug syndicate.

Do read the following before Alex Au's column:

- cops pose as gay men to nab drug traffickers in singapore (Fridae)
- Officers pose as gay lovers (The New Paper)

Cover of the 10 March 2006 edition of The New Paper which screamed, ''Ecstasy in bed, agony of arrest.''
The front page of The New Paper on 10 March 2006 screamed, "Ecstasy in bed, agony of arrest."

Supporting headlines: "CNB busts S'pore drug ring run by gays for gays" and "Cops acting as gays gatecrash bedroom 'party' in Tampines flat."

You'd later find out, on page two and three, that there was just one person in the bedroom.

The New Paper is Singapore's English-language tabloid that is well known for its sensationalistic treatment of the news.

One person wrote to an online forum, "drug raid la... why must make the report like its very big deal [with] gay?" His point was that it was a drug bust, nothing more, yet the newspaper played up the gay angle. Probably because of the gay connection, it went onto the front page when bigger busts don't always get into the inside pages.

For example, on 6 and 7 March, the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB), in another operation, arrested 14 suspected drug offenders, and "approximately 373 grams of Cannabis, 41 grams of Ketamine, 132 'Ecstasy' tablets and 1,129 Erimin-5 tablets were seized," according to the bureau's website.

Also, the same week, in a third operation, four other suspected drug traffickers were arrested, one of whom was caught red-handed while repacking the pills into smaller lots. "The total drug seizure includes 1,505 Erimin-5 tablets, 100 'Ecstasy' tablets and approximately 270.5 grams of Ketamine," the police said.

Neither of these stories made it into The New Paper.

Instead, the story that did involved four men being arrested, of whom two didn't even have drugs in their possession. The police later admitted that one of them "was later found to be unaware of any drug activities."

Six Ecstasy tablets were found in the bedroom where the third suspect was arrested. Only the fourth man, allegedly the main supplier, had 136 Ecstasy and eight Erimin-5 pills in his flat (at a separate location from the first three men's) when he was caught two hours later.

How does this compare with over a thousand pills found in each of the unreported stories?

Was The New Paper being irresponsibly homophobic?

It's the nature of news
On the other hand, this is the news business. The "gay drug bust" was more unusual and therefore more newsworthy than the rest. Notably, it involved undercover officers masquerading as gay men, making contact with an exclusively gay "syndicate" and fishing for an invitation to a private "party."

The New Paper generally requires every story to have a human interest angle. Lowbrow newspapers need that: their stories have to appeal emotionally.

Unlike the other raids, this one fit the bill. It had the subplot of heterosexual police officers suppressing their ego and trying to pass off as gay. It's a very scary exercise for them (and by extension, a very scary idea for their readers, which the editors seem to assume are all straight), or so the reporter made it seem.

That this human-interest angle was paramount can be seen from a textual analysis of the newspaper story. At least half of it dwelled on how the police officers thought of the task as an "uncomfortable assignment," how they "spent days researching the gay lifestyle," and how they wondered if they looked "tempting enough" on the day they went undercover.

The report also stressed that the police officers had either wives or girlfriends (just in case readers had any doubts).

The other half detailed the actual events of the raids, focusing on how one of the suspects was sitting on a bed with a blanket over him, giggling when the police officer first entered the room. The narrative had a prurient element, which as we all know, sells newspapers.
It's not as if any of it was fiction. Tough luck that in this instance, the drug ring that the CNB was after had a gay angle. That's how the chips fell.

Unavoidably, some readers might make the association between homosexual sex and substance abuse, thus adding to the stereotype, but is it any newspaper's responsibility to suppress a good story for the sake of helping any community look good?

Are gay Singaporeans, like Singaporeans in general, too dependent on a nanny state, unable to stand up for their own interests? Are they expecting the state-influenced media to look out for gays' image?

It is a bit rich to decry censorship when gay-positive news is not reported and then demand censorship when gay-negative news is about.

Hold on a minute...
Yet, responsible journalists should be aware that gays and lesbians are a target for prejudice. Too many people are all too ready to have their negative views reinforced and to make sweeping associations between the misdeeds of some and the reputation of all.

Take for example the front-page blurb, "CNB busts S'pore drug ring run by gays for gays". What if we substituted "Tamils" or "Muslims" for the word "gays"? You would immediately sense that it would be hurtful to Tamils or Muslims since many are prone to casting aspersions on people of a different race or religion. The newspaper would just be giving people reason to think the worse of them.

In other situations, such a blurb may be fine. "CNB busts drug ring run by students for students" or "CNB busts drug ring run by athletes for athletes" would not strike you as sensitive. That is because people are not generally prone to think ill of students or athletes. Such a blurb does not pander to prejudice when there is no pre-existing prejudice.

In what other ways does this news story pander to prejudice?

The playing up of the policemen's fears as they undertook the job might serve to make being gay inordinately alien. The use of "party" when there was only one person in the bedroom, and three altogether in the flat seems intended to sketch an unwarranted picture of hedonism.

Noteworthy was how the report mentioned that in the second flat, where the fourth man was arrested, the police also found "beauty products, creams, body toners, moisturisers and three sex toys," and health supplements.

One would have thought that almost all straight females and many straight males would have a supply of the same things in their homes too. So what was the point of mentioning them, especially as the police weren't after these items?

Look what the police ignored
But look on the bright side. We're quibbling about a tabloid. Nobody would say the police themselves were out of line, for drugs are a scourge and people who dabble in them should face the consequences.

Thirteen years ago, Singapore's police were sending young constables into cruising grounds as decoys to catch gay men as they made sexual contact, and those arrested had their names, jobs and faces splashed onto the front pages.

Today, the decoys are ignoring the sexual propositions even when they encounter them. Nobody is being busted for being gay anymore, at least not in an authorised operation. Somewhere in that difference, we should take heart.

Alex Au has been a gay activist for over 10 years and is the co-founder of People Like Us. Readers who have experience with applying for Dependent's Passes for their same-sex spouse to live together in Singapore could write to him so that that gay activists in Singapore can have some facts to go on. He can be contacted at yawning@geocities.com.


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