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A tale in the sting

If well-used, sting operations are an invaluable tool for justice. But we can no longer pretend that the recent operation in Delhi is an aberration we can afford to ignore, writes Barkha Dutt.

columns Updated: Apr 02, 2008 16:03 IST

The timing could not have been worse. On a day when television journalists were all set to wrestle the government to the ground over its imperious and inane Broadcasting Bill, along comes our own moment of ignominy and shame.

What was meant to be a television exposé on a Delhi schoolteacher who lured and coerced young girls into prostitution, has turned out to be an elaborate and orchestrated charade. The girl who plays the victim of the so-called resident pimp was neither a student at the school nor a reluctant sex worker. Instead, she was an aspiring reporter with her eye on the big break (I suppose, we should be grateful she was not a hired insurance agent or private detective — the new practitioners of the sting operation phenomenon). But by the time the channel’s bluff had been called, there were riots outside the school and hysteria across the country as parents hyperventilated about whether schools were being run as brothels.

So, was there any truth in the allegation that the schoolteacher under scrutiny was doubling up as a sex agent for paedophiles? We don’t really know. Several girls at the school told journalists that the teacher discomfited them with her vulgar innuendo. But the falsehoods employed by the television channel in question have sullied the truth irrevocably with their dirt; the means has made the end entirely irrelevant. In this case, the sting has struck itself in the tail.

The aggressive-defensive explanations have begun. We want our viewers to believe that this isn’t about sting operations; it’s about the distinction between good and bad journalism. But whether we like it or not, the fact is that the hidden camera has blurred the lines between right and wrong, between investigation and entrapment and between storytelling and spying. We need to admit that sting operations belong to the muddy and murky backwaters of journalism; waters you should venture into only if you are well guarded in tall boots and only when there are real crocodiles to catch. And all such journeys need a map and a clear path to plot. Instead they seem to have become free-falling adventures in which decoys and booby traps substitute navigation and clear thinking.

For those of us trained to believe that a reporter’s source is inviolably sacred, adjusting to the advent of sting operations has been both interesting and difficult. Instead of assiduously cultivating our own ‘Deep Throats’ within the otherwise impenetrable institutions of power, we could now use a hidden camera to hustle our way in. It was a moment of liberating power, but like every other classic high, it was both potentially addictive and dangerous.

Textbook journalism everywhere in the world has always frowned upon the sting as a tool of reporting. American graduate schools like the one I attended in New York, have a favourite ethical case study offered in the classes on media ethics. In the 1970s, the American newspaper, Chicago Sun Times, decided to expose how no one could run an honest, clean business without bribing the local police, especially if it involved procuring a much-coveted liquor licence. (Bar owners in India who will tell anyone who cares to listen how much money they lose in bribes, will identify with this one.) So 17 reporters from the newspaper just went ahead and opened their own bar, the Mirage. It also helped that you could get the cheapest draught beer in town there. The police performed on cue. The inspectors came in and asked for bribes nearly every day of the four months that the bar remained open. They were caught on hidden camera; it was 1978, so the sound of the shutter had to be drowned out by an especially loud jukebox. The 25-part series run grabbed several awards, but never the Pulitzer, because the jury could not agree on whether the methods used were honourable enough. The correspondents later argued that there had been no artificial lure, no money set out on the table deliberately; that they had actually run a real bar to show the everyday battle against corruption that small businessmen fought. They said this was tough, in-your-face journalism, not entrapment.

This is, perhaps, what is at the heart of the matter. There is something unseemly and mildly sleazy about reporters playing Pied Pipers who lay out the cheese to seduce conmen into their rat traps. It is much easier to justify the use of a hidden camera when it is for capturing an event that would take place whether or not the camera was there. Entrapment somehow can’t manage to shake off the suggestion of fabrication.

And yet, even the conservatives among us have come to accept that sometimes you lie to nail a bigger lie. The argument in favour of stings is the old and obvious one; sometimes there is just no other way to tell a story. Think about the hardest hitting headlines in the past few years. Whether it was the Tehelka story that exposed how political donations operate on a dangerous quid pro quo, the cash-for-questions scam that revealed how money was all it took to get an issue debated inside Parliament or the BMW sting that pointed to a chilling collusion between the defence and the prosecution in one of the most high profile hit-and-run cases — not one of these scams would have been possible to unveil without the use of a hidden camera. Most recently a sting operation by Zee TV tried to expose corruption among judges — something that no one ever talks about for fear of contempt. In every such case, the methods may have been dodgy, but the truth they exposed was unquestionably in the public interest.

It’s when underground investigations get mixed up with salacious sex scandals (we have had our share of so-called casting couch exposés masquerading as journalism) or hidden cameras are used to break the confidence of a source who has done no wrong himself, that stings enter the unethical zone. An innate lack of honesty with viewers is another huge problem area. A number of channels never reveal whether money has changed hands, whether stories have been purchased or in what circumstances an unsuspecting, hapless source has been lied to. Sometimes even the most robust operations are not transparent — remember Tehelka and the use of women as sexual bait to the Army officers it was trying to expose? It was a fact that emerged only after the scam had hit the headlines, and the team was forced to admit that it had been a mistake, first to use the women and then to keep it from the public eye.

Most of us marvel at the ingenuity and imaginativeness of sting operations, defend their right to exist and will argue that if well-used, they are an invaluable tool for justice. But we can no longer pretend that the recent conjured -up operation in Delhi is an aberration we can afford to ignore. Before the government uses the exception to thrust its own set of motivated rules on us, let us in the industry admit that we need a code of conduct that we can all agree upon, and one that we draft ourselves. (Thanks, but no thanks, is what we need to tell the I&B Ministry).

It’s something I have long argued in favour of on these pages. We must be ready for the scrutiny we subject others to. Because when the reporter becomes the story, the news takes a backseat.

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7

barkha@ndtv.com