A very unusual thing happened last fortnight—the media got a taste of its own creation, a sting.
There was a sting operation on a media channel by a major corporate house where the channel’s editor was heard demanding a large amount of money in lieu of suppressing controversial information regarding the company.
Amidst the surfeit of corruption stories that we hear and see nowadays, this is certainly a man-bites-dog story.
Sting operations are quite popular with both print and electronic media. Visuals and video footage of politicians taking bribes, actors asking for sexual favours, or just about anybody indulging in the kind of behaviour in private that will embarrass them in public have become easy to capture with new-age surveillance tools and cameras.
They also make fascinating stories with all elements of drama, especially for television channels. Not surprisingly, it is a rare channel that doesn’t “sting”, although some go too far. One channel did just that with the story of a Delhi school teacher “caught” on camera forcing students into sex work. This later led to public humiliation and lynching of the teacher. The Delhi high court took suo motu notice of this fake sting operation in which the reporter fabricated recordings to make these false allegations.
Since then, there have been numerous sting operations led by journalists or media organizations. Some such as the expose of cash for votes raised questions, serious questions. Some sting operations have actually been used as evidence to prosecute corrupt officials.
However, people have also raised concerns about the sheer disregard for privacy in most sting operations. And even the courts have suggested guidelines for reporters to prevent the abuse of undercover journalism.
Until the incident mentioned at the beginning, the media itself had never been stung. In this case, the company has gone to the extent of filing a complaint against the editor and the owner of the channel based on the recorded discussions. After a special review by a three-member committee, the accused editor has been removed from an important position at the Broadcast Editors’ Association (BEA). Even the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) is now looking into the matter at the Press Council of India (PCI).
Corruption is not alien to Indian media; one often hears about instances of media coercion and extortion, especially by smaller, regional media. PCI’s report on paid news has also confirmed institutionalization of such corrupt practices in our popular media. It started with Page 3 events, and now, political candidates are paying newspapers and TV channels to put out news favourable to them.
Today, newsrooms are competing for popularity, high ratings and advertising. With low accountability, most media outlets have ceased to be reliable source for information.
I also think such cases highlight one of the paradoxes of the profession of journalism. For all the power journalism may have to topple governments and expose the inner secrets of giant multinationals, it can also be an exceptionally fragile edifice, vulnerable to the petty greed of a single reporter/editor or strained economic circumstances of the owner.
Journalists are also from the same society we all belong to, where such practices of corruption have become a norm. It is just that we expect more from those who are watchdogs of our democracy. We respect and give them special privileges in our society because of these high expectations of integrity standards.
Ultimately, such incidences affect the long-standing repute of the media organization and also television news in general. For once, peer bodies such as BEA have drawn a line and emphasized self regulation by prompt action in this matter.
To address the issue of the eroding credibility of journalism, media owners, managers and editors must adopt, publicize, and then stick to a policy of zero tolerance for such corrupt practices.
Till then, I suspect we will see and hear many such sting expose on the media.