A sting operation (or two!) is one of those things that gives media consumers rare insights into the fissures within the media. Over five years after India saw its first "candid camera" expose, we the media are still debating the ethics of sting operations: or we think we are, because I have not as yet seen a cogent argument which shows exactly how and why they are unethical.
Most arguments say that sting ops are money-making TRP gimmicks. This implies that they are, therefore, not in public interest. Chintamani does not understand why they can't be both, why we haven't discarded socialism here: Profit? I don't run my channel to make profit! That's a dirty word. I worship media ethics sir, not Mammon!
Now why can't good journalism be good business as well? Better than the Medianet way of making money, I suppose.
Another argument is that they "create" news rather than report it. This is a coservative stance which does not seem to appreciate that we live very much in a world of reality TV and market-driven journalism. In any case, news is always created at news desks, it does not appear on its own like the trees in the woods. Oops, even the trees are 'planted'.
K of Presstalk writes
, "While I believe that such abuses of democracy need to be brought out into public, this was clear case of entrapment, which is illegal in certain countries."
He does not make clear his stance on the issue of 'entrapment'.
You decide which is worse: entrapment or the acceptance of black money by a public functionary who is supposed to be working for the people rather than lobby groups. K also links to a DNA editorial
which says, amongst other things: "It is troubling that the reporters of the website approached these MPs under false pretenses, by posing as representatives of an industry association. Why this subterfuge?" Do the edit writers at DNA
know what a sting operation is?
The ethics about sting journalism are clearly debatable, and one can enter that debate only if it is shorn of the pseudo-socialist arguments about TRPs and profits. However, there are some basic media ethics which no one can dispute: like presenting both sides of a story. However, the Bombay newspaper DNA
has been running a campaign against sting operations without presenting another side of the story (except one interview
and one opinion piece by Prashant Bhushan
). Even the tone of general reportage on Operations Duryodhana and Chakravyuh, like in this story
, is negative.
Today it had Pioneer
editor Chandan Mitra say
, (you guessed it): "The TV shows that revealed our politicians in the raw, however, were not necessarily motivated the high ideal of cleansing the system contrary to the producers’ claims. They were primarily driven by the urge to make a quick buck or climb a few notches on TRP ratings. So, two wrongs don’t make a right."
So making money through advertisements on a TV sting operation is wrong.
He compares the breach of privacy in a sting operation showing corruption in the highest echelons of power with the ban of camera phones in a dandiya session in Gujarat! He does not mention the argument that it is impossible to "prove" an actual incident of a lobby group paying an MP to ask questions in the Parliament. What the cash-for-questions sting op showed, in my opinion, is the next best thing: MPs taking money for asking questions on behalf of a fictitious organisation. It proves what every journalist now says he knew for years.
It's not just this opinion piece by Mitra, but many other anti-sting operations articles by DNA that take a very similar stance. Here's a DNA Sunday special
against stings. Here's one by Pankaj Pachauri
. Wait till you see a sting-op on NDTV, considering uncle Roy is one of the founders of a media school
that will take just three months to train you to do hidden-camera stories. DNA also reports
about the sting media school, without mentioning that Alka Saxena of Zee News
is also on board. Every channel worth its salt will now have a 'sting cell', and you will see a sting op every weekend. Zee
will not miss the bus, I bet. In which case it will be interesting to see DNA's coverage of Zee
's stings, because Zee
is part-owner of DNA
! You think Chintamani is bullshitting? I have evidence:
Sting suggests you can buy clearances for medical college
This disturbing revelation was made by a Zee News team of Vatsal Shrivastava, Pramod Sharma, and Nikhil Dube, which worked its way through a chain of brokers and agents to negotiate a deal in which it would have to pay Rs20 lakh for two medical colleges.
The sting operation, which was telecast on Friday night, exposed some MCI officials, including Deputy Secretary Dr KK Arora. Though the Zee team did not take the process to its logical conclusion and actually obtain a certificate of permission, its investigation raises doubts about the functioning of the country's highest medical regulatory body.
So a sting operation by Zee
does not raise questions of ethics extending to several editorial columns. One by Aaj Tak
does. This example of a DNA
report about a sting op on Zee belies ZEE's statement
that it "has not been involved in any such operation, unlike other channels, which use it as a medium to create sensation." Note how, in that link, there are statements from Star and NDTV
but not by Aaj Tak
As I write this and dig more into DNA
archives, I find they have a column by Rajat Sharma
(of India TV, of 'casting couch' fame) defending sting-ops. And I haven't even got around to unearthing their coverage of Sting II on the MPLAD scheme by Star News and 'DIG'.
Finally, don't miss this funny legal angle
they have. Lawyers are another tribe. More about the media's favourite lawyers in another post, another Christmas.