Writing in Hindustan Times (September 14) Rajdeep Sardesai noted that ?the sting? has become a legitimate weapon in a journalist'sarmoury (and) the hidden camera and its sophisticated variants are now part of the media landscape. Sardesai pointed out that ?every sting involves an element of deception? and that in the United States, the law and professional news organisations have stepped in to define the limits of the hidden camera.
In India, we have no law that governs sting operations, no internal guidelines in most news organisations and an unclear right to privacy. Sardesai in part defended sting operations on the grounds that in India ?we have a notoriously opaque society with a history of corruption and non-accountability? and ?in the Indian system, the hidden camera can become a valuable instrument of empowerment, a technological aid to expose those who misuse and abuse their authority?. Sardesai forgot to mention that a sting operation could also lead to blackmailing the victim and to other social crimes?all under the rubric of delivering social justice. We all know how a TV channel, India Live aired an undercover operation to expose the alleged role of a Delhi school teacher in illicit sex trade; a few days later this sting operation was found out to be an effort to ?frame? the innocent teacher.
The police were quick to act against the news channel and its reporter. Commenting on the episode, The Times of India (September 8) wrote: ?In a society that is as opaque as ours, it is perhaps sometimes necessary to go undercover in the interests of the larger public good. However, we must recognise, and admit, that increasingly the line between responsible journalism and sensationalism is becoming blurred. The changes brought about by technology and increased competition have not all been good.? Deccan Herald (September 12) also commenting on the event said that ?the incident has also exposed an extremely disconcerting trend in the media?. That is putting it mildly. The Hitavada (September 22) said that ?there is no way what the news channel did with its fake sting operation can be defended? and added that ?it should be made to pay for it?.
Has it been made to pay? On September 7, 2007 the Delhi government said that it is waiting for a full report from the police on the TV sting hoax before taking action. It is now November and no one knows what has happened since September 7. The media has forgotten the event. Its only desire is to ?break news?; the past is easily forgotten. Then there is the story of a Ludhiana photo-journalist who told a family in great financial trouble to commit suicide in order to attract the district administration'sattention to its problems. Wrote The Tribune (October 2): ?This certainly is not journalism? The consequences of such irresponsible behaviour are going to be debilitating. The profession will lose its credibility?. Since self-discipline is not working, the government may be tempted to intervene?? It is not the TV media alone which is guilty of sting operations that are illegal and indefensible. The Hindu (August 13) quoted former Karnataka Chief Minister H.D.Kumarappa as saying ?newspapers which had been set up specifically to uphold values and spirit of journalism have now acquired a business outlook? and that ?though the print media had followed the path of creativity and idealism earlier, it is now moving towards sensationalism and entertainment?. Shri Kumarappa was addressing a national seminar in Bangalore organised by the Karnataka Media Academy and the Editors? Guild of India.
Delivering the keynote address to the gathering, T.J.S.George, editorial adviser to The New Indian Express, regretted the fall in standards in the print media saying that sensationalism is the stock in trade and journalists are taking sides. Journalists, of course, do take sides and are free to argue their case, logically. There is no such thing as an ?objective? journalist.
But what Tehelka has been doing in recent times makes one wonder who is behind its latest sting operation, considering that elections are drawing near. Can it be called a sponsored operation? A sting operation is closely akin to illegal telephone tapping. It has to be banned. The argument that it is conducted to establish justice or to expose wrong doing sounds convincing but that is the job of the police, not of a journalist.
As Rajdeep Sardesai said: ?Before using a hidden camera, a journalist must first try and exhaust alternatives for obtaining an interview or information? and ?in some instances, permission of the federal authorities may also be required before the shoot?. Furthermore, he said: ?A hidden camera can be an important tool for solid, investigative journalism, but must be subject to well laid-out rules and procedures?. This is highly important and the task cannot be delayed. Based on the Tehelka operation, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Railway Minister is baying for the blood of the Gujarat Chief Minister. It is necessary to inform Shri Yadav that there once were cases against him of large-scale corruption which need to be looked into. The fact that so much is made in Congress (and UPA) circles about the Tehelka findings, one suspects that the current government in Delhi feels terribly shaky and is willing to clutch at any straw to damn the BJP. The time for mud-throwing has arrived and Lalu is past-master in that operation. Congress itself is being seen for what it is and its Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh has come in for severe drubbing in the hands of the media.
Thus, The Free Press Journal (October 24) condemned him for being ?the most flexible of intellectuals? who has ?surrendered to the lure of political power?. The paper said that ?such a chameleon-like character can have no strong beliefs, only strong personal interests? and noted that, in sum, one should ?not expect such a man to put in his papers for a supposed slight to his alleged sense of honour?. Added the paper, magisterially: ?Manmohan Singh is not the quitting kind. You need sterner stuff in your veins to sacrifice power for principles. Our man does not have principles, only convenient mantras different for each occasion…? It is damning indictment. The editorial was headed: ?This PM will never resign.? Not even, one suspects when he is humiliated.