Of Hasan Suroor, journalistic ethics and the tyranny of more information
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Of Hasan Suroor, journalistic ethics and the tyranny of more information

Would you pay for a story?

By Arunabh Saikia

Published on :

The editorial brief was simple: get something new. It is unlikely anyone was serious, given my history with finding fresh information to old stories. “I’d try,” I said nonetheless, without really meaning it. What could, after all, be a new angle in a story like this?

An anti-paedophile vigilante group had, in a sting operation, caught a sexagenarian British-Indian journalist, Hasan Suroor, participating in a sexual conversation with a 14-year-old. Suroor, according to a video released by the group, which calls itself Unknown TV, had even admitted that he was guilty.

As open-and-shut as they come, if you ask me. Besides, the India mainstream media too has reported on the incident.  Almost all news outlets have carried an agency copy, where Suroor is referred to as an “Indian-origin British journalist”.  However, none of the Indian publications he has written for previously mention the fact that he has been a columnist or journalist with them while carrying a report of the incident. Firstpost, Network18’s news website, where Suroor is a regular contributor, has not reported on the incident at all. The Guardian, too, doesn’t have anything on the arrest. We presume the folks there are keeping very busy with another Indian.

So I did what every mediocre journalist does when in distress (which is pretty much everyday): google. The idea was to find something about Unknown TV’s modus operandi, history, and so on. But even all-knowing Google seemed to know very little about this vigilante group. I managed to find one detailed story about them on a British website I had never heard of before. I emailed the journalist behind it, asking for a few leads. She replied promptly, with the phone number of one of the group members, Charlie Gaine.

I called Gaine several times, but he wouldn’t answer. Each time, my call kept getting redirected to his voicemail. I figured this wasn’t going to work – and decided to drop a message on the group’s Facebook page, fairly sure I wouldn’t get a response.  The day ended where it began, unsurprisingly: with no story.

Late in the evening, though, I received a Facebook message from the group: “Sir do you buy stories [sic].” When I responded saying I didn’t quite know what that meant, the person (whoever handles the page) made it clear: “Do you pay for stories [sic].” The person added, “Because if there was money involved in sure we could give you the full details and screenshots of the conversation [sic].” I will be honest here; I was tempted (“it’s a massive story,” the person added). So, I asked how much they expected.

They say ethical dilemmas often tend to get sorted on their own. This one too ended similarly when the person demanded “at least 600 sterling pounds”. I insisted that I didn’t want any screenshots but just an interview with the group. No – I was told politely but firmly. “Sir I’ve been told not to release any info without payment.”

While the encounter was monumentally unfruitful as far as finding a fresh angle or new information goes, it perhaps explains the absence of too many stories about them in the British press, in spite of them being around for some time now. Unknown TV’s Facebook page reveals that the group consists of four people: Kev, Jordan Clarke, Charlie Gaines and Chris Harris. Their modus operandi is simple. They set up fake Facebook profiles of underage girls and nab those who reach out and show intentions of initiating sexual relationships.

Courtesy: Unknown TV’s Facebook page

According to a British journalist who has followed their work closely over the years, the group has, so far, got 21 people arrested, but has failed to manage any convictions. All 21, the journalist told me, were advised by their lawyers to plead not guilty. The lack of conviction, it seems, is a result of the defence making the group’s activities come across as entrapment. However, in an interview with the website Newshopper, the group denies they entrap people. “If they bite, that is not my fault,” one of the members said.

According to news reports, Suroor has been charged under Section 14 and 15 of the United Kingdom’s Sexual Offences Act 2003 Act. Section 14 pertains to “arranging or facilitating commission of a child sex offence”. A “child sex offence”, in the UK, is defined as a “sexual activity with a child”, “engaging in sexual activity in the presence of a child”, “causing a child to watch a sexual act” and “causing or inciting a child to engage in sexual activity”.  Here, a child is a) anyone under 13; b) under 16, if the adult does not “reasonably” believe he/she is 16 or over. It is important to note here that Suroor, according to the sting video, was aware that the girl he was engaging with, was younger than 16.

For a similar offence in India, Suroor would have been tried under the Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (POSCO). The act criminalises a person “who repeatedly or constantly follows or watches or contacts a child either directly or through electronic, digital or any other means” with sexual intent. In India, anyone under the age of 18 is considered a child.

Meanwhile, just as I filed the story, a colleague acerbically pointed me to an interview of the group published in The Economic Times. The journalist, I am told reliably, got the interview without having to pay a single paisa.  At least, I have the weekend to recover.

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