OBLITERATING THE POLITICAL
One-party ideological dominance and the personalization of news in Singapore 21
Soek-Fang SimPolitical issues are typically covered by quality dailies as hard news; in the case of the Straits Times*a highly regarded English-language newspaper in Asia and the national daily in Singapore*hard political news acquires a human-interest feel despite journalists’ efforts to follow hard news conventions and to inject controversy into their coverage. While in liberal societies, this phenomenon has been attributed to commercialization, I argue that in Singapore, this human-interest element could be traced to the ideological dominance of the one-party government. In the absence of alternative frames, the official framing of national issues as questions of personal morality becomes the dominant ideological frame for journalists. There are two significant consequences of the shift from a political to a moral frame: the distinction between hard and soft news is blurred and media discourse becomes de-politicized.
KEYWORDS authoritarianism; ideology; news genre; Singapore; soft news
Introduction: Ideology and News Genre
Singapore is no ordinary authoritarian country. On the one hand, it is undeniably authoritarian, being listed among the company of Vietnam, China, North Korea and Myanmar as states that do not endorse the Union of Civil Liberty. On the other hand, it has been praised and upheld as a paragon by leaders of the free world. President Bush highlights Singapore as ‘‘an example for . . . the world of the transforming power of economic freedom and open markets,’’ while Prime Minister Blair considers Singapore the best illustration of the parallel achievements of economic success and social cohesion.
The descriptions heaped upon Singapore such as ‘‘popular dictatorship’’ and ‘‘soft authoritarianism’’ indicate that ‘‘although clearly authoritarian, Singapore is not a dictatorship but a hegemonic state, in the Gramscian sense . . . it is based not simply on coercion, but also consensus’’ (Castells, 1988, p. 78). Singapore has also been called ‘‘a classic case’’ of hegemonic authoritarianism, where a relatively institutionalized ruling party monopolizes the political arena (Diamond, 2002, p. 25).
How is this monopolization of the political or ideological arena achieved and how does it impact journalism? An analysis of the Straits Times’ news coverage would throw considerable light on these questions. As a quality daily where journalists claim and do comply with professional standards of journalism (such as following a hard news format and injecting controversy into news coverage), the resultant human-interest feel of political news points to the influence of one-party ideological dominance on journalism. It is my argument that in the absence of competing frames, the People’s Action Party’s (PAP)representation of national issues as questions of personal morality (e.g., what Singaporeans, not the government, ought to do) monopolizes the ideological arena and exerts visible influence on media discourse and news genre: (1) news genres are blurred as hard news becomes dominated by the (human-interest) focus on personal morality; and (2) media discourse is de politicized by the focus on moral (rather than political) controversy.
To delineate the impact of hegemonic authoritarianism on news, I outline the contemporary debate around news and democracy, then I describe and explain the shape of news in Singapore. [To continue readng...]