It is difficult to figure out which is the greater crime. The irreparable damage to the dignity and reputation of an individual as a result of callous and mala fide reporting. Or the colossal hammering of credibility that the entire media faces in the aftermath of the sting operation that ‘showed’ the shenanigans of a teacher allegedly engaged in luring her students into prostitution. The only good thing, if it can be called that, is that the false allegations have come to light and the case has collapsed in double-quick time. The sting operation that triggered a mob to attack the teacher now seems to have been concocted from start to end, to the criminal extent that the teacher’s denials were cleverly edited out of the coverage. In the bargain, the spotlight has swung from the ‘actor’ on stage to the ‘director’ of the concocted morality play. The TV channel, Live India, must be severely punished for cheating the public and maligning an individual.
In all this, a word of caution. It is all too easy for rhetoric on the authenticity, desirability and very requirement of sting operations to overwhelm the debate. If the government, the media and the public restrict themselves to this, it will be missing the wood for the trees. For at the core of what is rotten is the basic lack of ethics, not to mention professionalism, practised by the individual TV channel and its editors. A sting operation is merely another tool of reporting. In the Live India sting, not only was fiction represented as fact, but the victim was targeted on the basis of personal enmity. The channel’s editors — TRP-greedy to the point of crookedness — should have known better than to throw all the rules of journalism (which apply to sting operations as well) out of the window. Neither will the teacher’s humiliation be forgotten in a hurry nor will we have answered how the credibility of the media is to be restored. True, one ‘vulture’ doesn’t make a media winter. It was the media, after all, that was suspicious and asked the right questions. Equally, a rigid code for content — widely seen to be excessive regulation even for entertainment channels — is not acceptable for news channels. But it is simply not enough to say that the State should not interfere with a free media and not have a strict framework in place for what passes journalistic muster. The media, especially television, must man their own borders to stop the ‘infiltration’ that allows fabrications to be dolled up as news.
We hope that the government will not ride on this deplorable Live India sting to push through the many gags couched in the existing avatar of the Broadcast Bill. How the media govern themselves should be the yardstick on which the impact of the scam must be measured. Are the benchmarks robust enough to handle the TRP overreach? Are there checks and balances in place in every news organisation to ensure that fiction stays out — whether in craftily edited television broadcasts or cunningly concocted interviews? Clearly, a framework of guidelines and a code of conduct is in order. It is for editors to string this in place and to maintain standards. Bad, mala fide journalism is just that. It does not make journalism, through its methodologies and media, suspect.