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Beyond the byte

If journalism is being debased, it is those in the profession who must take the responsibility, writes Rajdeep Sardesai.

india Updated: Sep 13, 2007 23:01 IST
Rajdeep Sardesai

A few weeks ago, I received an SMS: “Dear sir, I am from Patna. I have more than 40 stings with me. Meet me once, you will not be disappointed. Trust me, together we will create a tehelka (pun, possibly intended).” I chose not to respond in the firm belief that this was one Tehelka I did not want to be a part of.

After all, 40 sting operations at one go sounded a bit unreal. I have little doubt though that someone, somewhere would have responded to the man from Patna; in this open season for outsourcing sting journalism, there must be a buyer who found the offer attractive. As perhaps did the news channel that aired the now infamous Uma Khurana sting, where a schoolteacher was alleged to be a willing accomplice to a prostitution racket till it was discovered that the schoolgirl who was being used as bait wasn’t a student after all. <b1>

To practitioners in the television news whirl, the Khurana episode should come as no surprise. It was, in a sense, an incident waiting to happen. Which is why some of the self-righteous hand-wringing that has followed the arrest of the television reporter who did the sting is a bit strange. Suddenly, the cheerleaders of the hidden camera exposé are turning on their favourite target: TV news. As if one sting operation with its shades of grey should be reason enough to tar the entire profession with the brush of unprofessionalism, and worse, criminality.

Let’s be honest: the sting has become a legitimate weapon in a journalist’s armoury, the hidden camera and its sophisticated variants are now part of the media landscape. Every channel, large or small, has used the hidden camera, often to devastating effect. Let’s also be clear: every sting involves an element of deception. Then, whether you are posing as a defence dealer or an NGO, (or, as in the Khurana case, a schoolgirl), the sting necessarily involves luring someone through false pretence: as a result, the lines between an exposé and entrapment can often be very thin.

In the United States, the law and professional news organisations have stepped in to define the limits of the hidden camera. Take for example CNN’s policy guidelines on this. It clearly states, “The information or evidence to be gathered by a hidden camera should significantly contribute to a story that is of substantial value to society or of vital public interest.” Second, the expectation of illegal behaviour or wrongdoing should be strong (i.e. no fishing expedition). Third, before using a hidden camera a journalist must first try and exhaust alternatives for obtaining the interview or information. Fourth, hidden-camera shoots must have the prior approval of the senior news management. In some instances, permission of the federal authorities may also be required before the shoot. Moreover, simply because it is ‘good television’ is not a good reason to use the hidden camera. Bottomline: a hidden camera can be an important tool for solid, investigative journalism, but must be subject to well-laid out rules and procedures.

India is different. We have no law that governs sting operations, no internal guidelines in most news organisations, and an unclear right to privacy. At the same time, we are a notoriously opaque society, with an history of corruption and non-accountability. In such a system, a blanket ban on sting operations, as was hinted at by a Supreme Court judge, is no solution.

In the Indian system, the hidden camera can become a valuable instrument of empowerment, a technological aid to expose those who misuse and abuse their authority. Then, whether it be members of parliament who are ready to ask questions in the House for a price, ministers willing to courier drugs, doctors who will amputate limbs of beggars or lawyers who will collude with witnesses, a sting operation can be staunchly defended for being in the public
interest space.

The question is who will decide what is in the ‘public interest’: the government (as it wishes to do in the Broadcast Bill), the viewers (who continue to have a Jekyll-and-Hyde approach to the blurred images), the courts (who see themselves as custodians of morality) or the editors (who are well paid to ensure standards)? In the final analysis, notions of public interest must necessarily be subjective, exercised on a daily basis in a 24x7 news wheel by those who are responsible for channel content.

Unfortunately, the real flaw in the system lies not in the idea of a sting, but in the process of editorial filtration, which must accompany the selection of content. It’s that process which is under severe strain in this era of quick-fix, and almost reckless, journalism where almost every hour seems to demand a new breaking news headline, where the battle for eyeballs has become increasingly frenzied, where a sense of editorial worth is seemingly determined by the Friday morning channel ratings. The resultant pressures have meant that otherwise sensible editorial minds end up doing the most irrational journalism: sensationalising and titillating instead of informing and enlightening. At one of those endless debates on media ethics, the editor of a leading news channel made the stunning submission that for him, “conscience did not matter, only ratings did!” (by the way, there is no established connection between a sting and television rating points).

When the ethical foundation of journalism has been dismantled so starkly by editorial heads, is it any wonder those who are just entering the profession are gripped by a sense of moral vacuousness? In that sense, the young reporter who has been arrested in the Khurana case is as much a ‘victim’ of the new rules of the journalistic game as was the lady who was ‘stung’. How does a young reporter with stars in his eyes make a mark in an increasingly cluttered news market? By simply out-sensationalising his peers even as his seniors mistakenly applaud ‘cowboy’ journalism for serious investigation.

Perhaps, the latest controversy provides news practitioners with a final opportunity to evolve a much-needed industry code of conduct before the government steps in. Self-regulation is only part of the answer: how would self-regulation ensure a uniform adherence to standards in an industry where everyone, from political fixers to real estate sharks, believe they can bring out a news channel? Unless there is an industry-prescribed broadcasting code of conduct with strict penal provisions for non-observance, news journalism is in danger of hurtling down a slippery slope of normlessness, with a resultant loss of credibility.

Let’s also not make the sting fallout a bitter television versus print debate. This must be a debate about media ethics, which involves the entire news media. There are no easy solutions either, for ethical choices are often shaped by commercial pressures. But it is no longer enough to blame smart-suited marketing men alone for compromising editorial integrity. In the end, the editorial leadership of newspapers and channels need to take a hard look at themselves: have we succumbed to temptation too easily: the extravagant lifestyle, the fame game, the cosy, incestuous relationships, the low attention to detail?

Journalism is still, at its very core, a noble profession: reporting fearlessly, engaging with the spirit of ideas, challenging those in power, rigorously questioning prevailing wisdom, celebrating human achievement, and offering a mirror to a wide world. If journalism is being debased, it is those in this profession who must take the responsibility. Rather than live in denial, this must be seen as a collective failure that calls for urgent remedial action. Else, who knows, the next sting could well be on us editors!

Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, CNN-IBN and IBN-7