Sting operations are getting to be very fashionable. They are replacing investigative journalism which belongs to a different category altogether. There is one major difference between sting and investigative journalism. Sting operation is done on the sly without the ?victim? knowing that he is being spied upon. Whether it is illegal or not, it is clearly unethical. And it does no credit to journalism.
The usual argument in favour of sting journalism is that there is no other way to expose evil or wrong doings by the high and mighty and that it becomes sometimes necessary to adopt questionable methods to achieve noble ends. It is a bogus argument. This is a matter of ends and means. Resorting to sting operations to achieve allegedly right ends is not justifiable under any circumstances. Such techniques to be made operative should at the very least require magisterial permission. This includes tapping of private conversations, opening mail and taking photographs.
The Supreme Court, in the circumstances, was quite right in demanding an ?unconditional apology? from a private TV channel reporter who conducted a sting operation and obtained bailable warrants from an Ahmedabad court against the then President, Chief Justice of India, a Supreme Court Judge and a senior advocate in 2004.
On July 26 a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan told Zee TV reporter Vijay Shekhar who has claimed to have resorted to sting operation to expose corruption in lower judiciary to tender ?an unconditional apology?.
According to Hindustan Times ( July 27) the Bench said that it was clear from reports of the CBI and the High Court that it was an isolated incident. ?Entire criminal justice system was questioned. Everybody believed that this was happening? including the judges?, the Bench is reported to have said. On behalf of the reporter and the TV channel, senior counsel Arun Jaitley submitted that the sting operation was carried out to expose corruption in the lower judiciary and there was no intention to tarnish the image of the judiciary by sensationalising the issue.
Hindustan Times reported, Shri Jaitley and Advocate Maninder Singh as saying that the channel acted in a very responsible manner, as it consulted a senior counsel, brought the matter to the Court'snotice, submitting the original tapes of the sting operation and then only telecasting it. That did not convince the Chief Justice who reportedly asked: ?What public good had he (reporter) done?? Prima facie the reporter has committed a serious crime.?
The paper said that Justice Dalveer Bhandari agreed with him. This raises a very serious question. Conceding for the moment that a sting operation has its uses, where does one draw the line? Can one argue, for instance, that the operation was conducted only at the lower level of the judiciary and must therefore be acceptable in law? Furthermore, that the original tapes had been brought to the Court'snotice and only then telecast? Did the Court give its sanction for the telecasting of a tape that was surreptitiously shot? It is hard to believe it. Corruption has to be exposed?that is part of a journalist'sjob?but certain values have to be observed and sting operation is certainly not one of them. Of late Prasar Bharati has been under the microscope and there have been several critical comments in the media over its role and functioning. Writing in the Nagpur-based Hitavada (July 26) for instance Dr Bharat Jhunjhunwala charged the Government with ?misusing? broadcasting, a charge made by Arun Jaitley as well who had said that ?Doordarshan has become the mouthpiece of the Government and certain political parties?. According to Dr Jhunjhunwala ?we are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea? with private players ?promoting harmful things efficiently, while ?Government uses its monopoly for partisan ends?.
As Dr Jhunjhunwala sees it, privatisation and bureaucratisation are both not acceptable with the solution possibly lying in privatisation with regulation. Writing in Mainstream (July 20-26) N.V.K. Murthy noted that ?what we have today is an autonomous institution called Prasar Bharati, in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and under its control.?
He added: ?It would be unrealistic to expect the government to let go its hold on Prasar Bharati which wields enormous power. So, the question is: How can the misuse of broadcasting by the party in power be eliminated at least in some crucial areas?? One of the best Op-Ed Pages in the English media is to be found in The Hindu, though The Indian Express and the Chandigarh?based The Tribune do not lag far behind.
The Hindu has to be complimented also for the editorial page which carries articles full of meaning and content. The other day, for example, Harish Khare and Siddharth Varadarajan interviewed?just as Karan Thapar did on CNN-IBN?National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan on the bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement (also known as the 123 Agreement) and what that meant for the future of Indo-US relations. He was a key man in the talks and it was important that the citizen knew at the very least what the agreement was all about and to what extent India and the United States have resolved their differences. On the even of the India-Brazil South Africa (IBSA) Foreign Ministers meeting in New Delhi it was Siddharth Varadarajan, again, who interviewed Brazil'sForeign Minister Celso Amorim for The Hindu (July 17).
In the past Brazil was not in the picture vis-?-vis the Non-Aligned Movement, nor was South Africa. India is now making new friends in a meaningful way. And the reader must be given insights into the thinking of these new friends. A week later (July 24) The Hindu carried a very significant article by M.S. Swaminathan, chairman of the National Commission on Farmers on how to make India hunger-free, and make India achieve a rural knowledge revolution. This is a far cry from the so-called Page 3 journalism and is meant to inform and educate the reader instead of merely entertaining him.
Four months ago The Tribune (April 28) carried an exclusive interview with Benazir Bhutto who said she was planning to return to Pakistan ?irrespective of whether there is an understanding (with Musharraf) or not?. Now that both have met again, that earlier interview assumes some significance. If only other papers would follow these examples, how much more relevant would our English media be!