Crisis of Diluted Venom

Whispers of cynicism and credibility deficit plaguing media houses have taken the sting out of sting operations.

Do you remember these lines from the Gill Scott-Heron song of the 1970s?

‘’The revolution will not be televised,

Will not be televised, will not be televised,

The revolution will be no rerun brothers,

The revolution will be live.”


In a weird way, when you look back at the decade that has passed since the Tehelka sting operation (Operation West End, 2001) on murky defence contracts , the satirical import of these lines adds to the disillusionment. In fact, disillusionment is the wrong word; many were under no illusion. Only few had used the pompous word ‘revolution’ to describe it as a defining moment for investigative journalism in the electronic media. Hold on, another correction – even investigative journalism seems too loaded a phrase. One of the key architects of the operation, Aniruddha Bahal, prefers the innocuous sounding phrase ‘undercover story’. You have to give it to him because his ‘primary impulses are literary’.  And you need not feel sorry if you did not hear the crackling noise that he caused by A Crack in the Mirror (1991). Certainly such ‘undercover stories’ could not alter the saga of the witch hunt (a euphemism for the state persecution) which followed.

There is something else that has made the whispers sound loud. These are the whispers of cynicism and credibility deficit plaguing media houses, which have really taken the sting out of sting operations. Journalistic introspection of sting operations in means-end binary is one critical aspect; more disturbing is the scepticism regarding the motives of sting operations and the public interest it claims to be serving.

In India, the post-Tehelka decade has witnessed stings that have questioned the ambit of journalistic practices and stretched the definition of ‘public interest’. Some stings are accused of pandering to voyeurism, others to vindictive score settling, and some to just TRP chasing sleaze and grabbers (some even fabricated ones, remember the Live India sting on the school sex racket, 2007). You cannot brush aside the lurking danger, and the danger stems from the credibility crisis that has let cynicism creep into the popular imagination of the media space.

The hope that the hidden camera would flash some public spirited exposes is also a rather naive one. The divided opinion on the journalistic legitimacy of stings is almost a Socratic-Hegelian divide or even a Socratic-Gandhian divide.

The defenders of using any means to get hold of information that public authorities are reluctant to share, or to unearth corruption, have a philosophical giant to look up to. Socrates summed up the zeal of intrepid inquiry tersely – “speaking truth to power”. But the fundamental problem with such truth seeking is how it is sought, and this becomes central to Gandhian critique of sting-led investigative journalism. If journalistic practices are not based on ethical foundations of fair means, can it draw moral legitimacy to talk about the ends achieved through investigative exercises? Now that is a question that can even confront the Assanges of a different world of leaking truths. And remember some of the famous, or infamous stings of recent times, were seen in the pages of the now defunct and ethically dubious News of the World tabloid (the latest being spot fixing sting on Pak cricketers).

The other set of questions veer towards Hegel, who posed the question that defines the moral dilemma of the stings coming out from the fangs of visual voyeurism of our times. Hegel asked quite innocently – “why should man ask what man is?” The context might be different but the question for contemporary media is: “why should media choose who is corrupt?” Are stings selective? For every one sting, there are several hidden stories? Doesn’t one undercover discovery have several cover-ups? And who defines what ‘public interest’ is? Are small fries soft targets? Was Shakti Kapoor the biggest culprit in the casting couch racket that runs through Bollywood? And are journos with fangs and stings merely truth seeking creatures or political animals playing to some score settling script?

The reappraisal of sting operations and its place in the ethical narrative of journalistic practices has an element of paradox: it has to be cynical and edifying at the same time. But an even more important question for sting practitioners is that of public trust. Caesar’s wife cannot be vindictive, neither politically motivated nor commercially seduced – she has to be above suspicion. Negotiating this tricky path is always a challenge for news. With stings or ‘investigative’ pieces it becomes even more so.

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