There’s little in last week’s Delhi High Court ruling on sting operations that will sound anathema to any television channel or print media editor. The court, giving its ruling on the fake sting operation conducted by news channel Live India on Delhi teacher Uma Khurana, prohibited the act of inducing a person to commit an offence “which he is not known or likely to commit” and capture the ‘crime’ on hidden camera for public airing on TV.
The fact that the unsavoury episode was an example of terrible journalism — where facts were thrown out of the window, footage was edited out to suit a lie simply to concoct a ‘tehelka’, and the reputation of an individual was trampled upon (to the point of a lynch mob attacking her) simply to get viewers tuned in — is not in doubt to anyone at all.
At the time when the Uma Khurana sting was exposed, we had suggested that like any black sheep in the flock, media companies that don’t play by the three core journalistic rules of facts, facts and facts, and make matters worse by purporting the lies to be the truth, should be severely punished — being pulled permanently off the air being an option. But we had also warned of not using the false sting operation as the default mode to judge all sting operations.
A sting operation that has been manufactured is a more potent — and thereby toxic — equivalent of a false news story. In the unfortunate occasion of a concocted news story being published in a newspaper, it is the erring/mala fide newspaper that has to face the penalty — not the newspaper medium as a whole. The same logic holds for sting operations, which despite its ‘secretive’ nature, is beholden to the same rules of fact-checking, proper editing and paper trails of authenticity.
We are hammering on this single point because of a ‘suggestion’ made by the same wise bench of the court that has got our brows up in slight consternation. It has proposed that the government examine a suggestion that a panel formed of members of the government and the police vet sting operations before they are aired on TV. This I&B Ministry within the I&B Ministry approach smacks of control-freakishness where only control is required. The fact is that the creators and broadcasters of fake sting operations will face the wrath of the law. So, why this terrible urge to play Chief Censor? Say a news story exposes a police or a government official of wrongdoings with all the facts bearing out. Will the members of the panel clear the story for public airing? Note: we haven’t mentioned anything about sting operations.