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To sting or not to sting is the question

It’s too late to debate whether using a hidden camera for a story is ethical journalism or not because sting journalism is here to stay, writes Poonam Saxena.

india Updated: Oct 27, 2007 03:34 IST
Poonam Saxena

So the big daddy of sting operations is back. In 2001, we saw grainy black-and-white shots of Bangaru Laxman stuffing wads of notes into a drawer; and now, in 2007, we’re seeing grainy pictures of men from the VHP and Bajrang Dal recounting with chilling casualness how they killed Muslims during the 2002 Gujarat riots. The Tehelka sting was shown — and is probably still being shown — on

Aaj Tak

(Operation Kalank) and

Headlines Today

.

It’s too late to debate whether using a hidden camera for a story is ethical journalism or not because sting journalism is here to stay. Every news channel that wants to make an impact does a sting. There is only one question you can ask now: should the sting have been done at all?

There are two criteria that we need to apply. One: did it fulfil a greater social purpose than say, telling us that Shakti Kapoor made a pass at a reporter? Two: did it constitute entrapment? Did it encourage people to do something that they would not normally have done?

On both criteria, the Tehelka sting passes muster. Surely the exposure of mass murder constitutes journalism with a social purpose. And there was no entrapment here. Nobody was being asked to do something new for the cameras. All they were doing was bragging about events that had taken place in the past.

Like most journalists, I’m deeply ambivalent about hidden cameras. But I have to say that on this occasion, it’s hard to say how these murderers could have been exposed in any other way.

Most shocking, at least for me, was the response of BJP spokesmen to the revelations.

They could have said that they believed that the likes of Babu Bajrangi were lying. They could have argued that the bragging of relatively small-time individuals is not necessarily the kind of proof that will stand up in a court of law. And they could have made the point that Tehelka had nothing from Narendra Modi himself.

Instead, they went on the offensive accusing Tehelka and the TV channel (in this case Aaj Tak) of being in league with the Congress. Prakash Javadekar, surely the most inept spokesman that any political party could hope for, even declared that he had been expecting something along these lines because the elections were due.

Expecting something along these lines? What does that mean? That he knew that the evidence of mass murder was there waiting to be exposed?

Perhaps by the time you read this, Narendra Modi will have responded to these serious charges. So far, he has bristled when Rajdeep Sardesai asked him about the riots at the HT Summit and then walked out of an interview when Karan Thapar tried to raise the same subject. But isn’t it time that he gave us some answers?

Certainly, as an Indian I felt ashamed and horrified to hear a Sangh Parivar activist brag about how he tore open the uterus of a pregnant Muslim woman and threw out the foetus.

That said, I have to complain about Aaj Tak’s traditional insensitivity. Interviewing the widow of Congress MP Ehsan Jafri (on the Tehelka footage, a rioter boasts about cutting his arms and legs off and then burning him while he was still alive), the Aaj Tak anchor kept on relentlessly: “So you were there when his arms and legs were cut off, you saw it all happen in front of your eyes…” Just because you’re on television, it does not follow that you forget the basic rules of human decency and sensitivity.

Despite the insistent questioning, the poor woman somehow managed to retain her composure, even as she revealed that the family got some of the ashes only four or five days after the murder (they did the burial with these ashes).

Also, when the sting is so high-impact and bound to affect viewers powerfully, is it necessary for the channel to ‘scream’ so much? But then, I suppose subtlety is a word that doesn’t exist in the dictionaries of most TV news channels.