Trouble with Operation Sting

Every sting should be tested on the anvil of public interest, writes Shohini Ghosh.

india Updated: Oct 29, 2006 03:38 IST

On October 14, CNN-IBN telecast footage obtained from a sting operation showing three UP legislators, including a minister, accepting bribes from a decoy in a major sting operation. They were state Backward Classes welfare minister Mehboob Ali, an Independent MLA aligned with the Mulayam Singh Yadav government, BSP MLA Anil Kumar Maurya and BJP legislator Somaru Ram. The UP Assembly was outraged — not because they had corrupt officials in their midst but because Rajdeep Sardesai had refused to show up in person and explain his actions. Clearly, the intention was not to discuss the morality of sting operations but to intimidate Sardesai for causing such inconvenience.

The Supreme Court’s observation that sting operations are money-making rackets is anachronistic in the age corporate media ownership. Whether a particular enterprise is a “racket” depends on one’s subjective opinion but surely ‘money making’ is not exclusive to sting operations or TRP-driven media houses. In the absence of strong arguments ‘money-making’ is frequently deployed as shorthand for wrongdoing. Are we not told that pornography is a billion dollar business? As though steel and garment manufacturing are not?

But our legitimate anger against corrupt and cynical politicians should not prevent us from discussing the ethical dilemmas around sting operations. In his defence of sting operations (HT, Oped, October 21), Tarun Tejpal writes that: “every responsible journalist believes that stings should not cross into private lives” and that “every sting should be tested on the anvil of public interest”. Now, how are we to achieve this impossible mission? Where does public interest end and private lives begin? For instance, does the planting of spycams in the homes of public officials constitute public interest or violation of privacy? The lines between the two are as slippery as the line that divides pornography from erotica. As the old saying goes, “What I like is erotica and what you like is pornography.”

Were we to take stock of the entire gamut of sting operations carried out after Operation Westend, we would discover that they are poised precariously between private lives and perceived public interest. Worse, there seems to be no consensus on what constitutes public interest. Recently, a major news channel conducted a sting on an elderly teacher who was having an extramarital relationship with a younger woman. The country witnessed private lives being dissected on national TV as ‘real footage’ jostled with studio discussions featuring a panel of experts! Not one panelist questioned the ethics of such intrusive ‘journalism’ leave alone its total irrelevance to public interest.

Last year, Rajat Sharma’s India TV (and Sharma is considered a responsible journalist by many) conducted a sting operation to “expose” the film industry’s casting couch. They got a 21-year-old reporter to pose as an aspiring starlet and sent her to actor Shakti Kapoor’s hotel room for career counselling. Predictably, the screen villain started negotiating sexual favours when the sting team stormed in with war cries of having “exposed” the “exploitation” and “sexual harassment” of young starlets. By definition, harassment is constituted by coercion and a violation of consent. The recordings clearly show that the ‘undercover’ reporter consensually entered into a situation where trading of sexual favours became a part. While such negotiations between consenting adults may constitute corrupt and unethical business practice, it certainly does not constitute harassment.

Moreover, is entrapment the equivalent of exposure? India TV hadn’t planted hidden cameras, objectionable as even that would be, to record a meeting set up by Shakti Kapoor and a third party but had themselves become players in a drama they had scripted. This recalls the Delhi Police drive against ‘eve-teasers’ where police women in plain-clothes solicited men on the streets and arrested them as soon as they responded! The use of entrapment through decoys is not a revelatory strategy but a ‘surprise test’ of morality.

In the last decade, surveillance has become an integral part of our urban experience. Security cameras in public and private spaces, wiretapping, citizen journalists brandishing phone cams and legislations like TADA routinely violate our privacy. In such a situation, I would demand stringent legislations for the protection of individual privacy as passionately as I would advocate the punishing of criminal practices. Violation of individual privacy cannot be justified by the rhetoric of public or national interest.

Tejpal writes that stings take energy, time, innovation and hard work. Perhaps. But is it not equally true that old-fashioned investigative journalism of following the paper trail (like Watergate and ‘Boforsgate’) require even harder work? And may exclude the perks of instant fame, high visibility and an increase (however short-lived) in TRP ratings? I despair every time a student in class says that she wants to be an investigative journalist and conduct sting operations. I have visions of media schools firing their faculty and hiring private sleuths to teach the high art of concealing recording equipment! I was on a talk show with a sting-defender who said the “camera can go where the pen cannot”. I would argue that neither pen nor camera should travel anywhere without a sense of principles. The pursuit of paper trail, recording of testimonies, crosschecking facts and dogged legwork is not only more ethical but likely to be more effective in the long run. I say this because the dictum “seeing is believing” will be radically transformed in the 21st Century.

Digital simulation of photo-realistic images has severely challenged the credibility of photo-images as an evidentiary category. Consider the photograph supposedly taken seconds before the 9/11 catastrophe and recovered subsequently from the debris. A young tourist poses for the camera on top of the twin towers while one of the hijacked planes flies towards him. This widely circulated image turned out to be digitally simulated — a hoax! Popular access to digital manipulation of images will only deepen the disjuncture between ‘seeing’ and believing with viewers becoming increasingly sceptical of the ‘truth claims’ of visible evidence. As the odes to sting operations become replaced with its obituary, journalists will have to return to journalism.

(The writer is Associate Professor at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia.)

First Published: Oct 29, 2006 03:38 IST