Why India Today’s JNU sting did more harm than good

By attempting to be balanced and condemning all sides equally, the media is simply reinforcing the narrative of the state. That is not our job.

ByKalpana Sharma
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Why India Today’s JNU sting did more harm than good
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From the swirl of accusations, viral videos, injured students and teachers following the attack by a group of masked men and at least one woman in Jawaharlal Nehru University on January 5, several questions related to the media have arisen. 

There is already considerable analysis of the way TV news channels have covered the JNU violence, including on Newslaundry.

What has not been talked about is the ethics of the sting operation conducted by India Today, what the news channel calls the “JNU tapes”. On January 10, even as a Delhi police spokesperson was telling the media that an investigation into the violence had begun and nine students had been identified (seven from the Left groups and two from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, although the spokesperson inexplicably failed to mention this fact), India Today reported that it had identified two of the “assailants” from January 5.  And that both these students were with the ABVP.

The tapes showed a young man, a first-year student in French named Akshat Awasthi, boasting about what he did on the evening of January 5: how he beat up a man with a beard he thought was Kashmiri, how he trashed parts of the Sabarmati hostel, and how he was responsible for rounding up another 20 students who joined him.  With him was another first-year student named Rohit Shah, who said very little except that he had given Akshat his helmet to prevent him from being injured.  

The sting also included a short statement by Geeta Kumari, from one of the Left groups, who admitted that they had shut down the server room to prevent students from registering for the new semester. In fact, students from Left groups had already admitted this publicly and were openly squatting in front of the server room to block access.  

So what did India Today achieve by this sting? Predictably, the ABVP denied that Awasthi was a member or office-bearer of the group.  Not much was heard about the other student. Alt News, the diligent fact-checking website run by Pratik Sinha, however, did establish Awasthi’s association with the ABVP, something that India Today did not do.  

The sting reiterated what was already known by the time it was shown, that the ABVP was responsible for the violence that occurred in the evening on January 5. In fact, even the police acknowledged this when they named two people from the ABVP, Shiv Mandal and Vikas Patel, amongst the culprits.  Despite the absence of footage from CCTV cameras, which the police claim did not work because the server room had been shut down, they could zero in on these men because the media had posted photographs and videos of them from which they were easily identified.

Yet, why did the police name more people from the Left groups, including Aishe Ghosh, president of the JNU Students’ Union, who suffered a serious head injury? That is a story that’s still unfolding.  In response to a petition by three JNU professors, the Delhi High Court has instructed the police to identify the people on two WhatsApp groups – Friends of RSS and Unity Against Left.  Within a day of the violence, print and online media had already broken this story and reported the messages being exchanged on these groups just before the violence. The court has asked the police to confiscate their phones. If and when the Delhi police do this, the number of ABVP members named ought to exceed the seven from the Left.  But for that we must wait. 

The question that needs to be asked about the India Today sting is that if the involvement of the ABVP had already been exposed by the story on the WhatsApp groups, and two of their members had been identified by the media, what did their exposé achieve?

The main problem, in my view, was the false equivalence the channel sought in the name of being “balanced”. The public acknowledgement of a member of the Left about the server room was juxtaposed with a video that had been posted by an ABVP member on social media. This showed Ghosh and some hooded and masked students, none of them carrying sticks or any other potential weapon (with the strapline “masked mob”), running towards one of the hostels. There is nothing in that video to establish that this so-called “mob” was responsible for any violence.

Meanwhile, the anchor, Rahul Kanwal, asked this question: “Was this the trigger for violence on January 5?” This was clearly an attempt to suggest that both sides were equally responsible for the violence later that day. And as if to confirm this, when Awasthi is asked on hidden camera why they went about beating up people, he says, “It was a reaction to their action.” Where have we heard this before? The man who said words to this effect in Gujarat in 2002 is now the prime minister of India.

Thus, there are basically two troubling questions about the India Today sting. One is the sting itself and the old debate on whether this is journalism. It is a question that has been discussed in India and elsewhere and the jury is still out. The Poytner Institute has four basic precepts it suggests should govern those deciding to use this method.  They are:

  • The information revealed should be of profound public interest or prevent harm to individuals.
  • A sting should be used only as a last resort – a recourse after all other means of reporting have been exhausted.
  • The journalist and news organization methods should reflect excellent journalistic practice and commitment to truth.
  • The value of information revealed through subterfuge should outweigh any harm caused by the act of deception.

Those who wish to read more on this and can do so here

The Readers’ Editor of The Hindu, AS Pannerselvan, also argues, “Apart from the ethics and accepted norms, I also feel that this technique exposes only the gullible, who are not at the top of the political pyramid.” This is relevant in this instance as the sting exposed two young men, lightweight members of the group responsible for the violence. No one from the ABVP is going to come to the aid of Awasthi or Shah. One of them is reportedly absconding for fear of being arrested. Meanwhile, the real masterminds have still to be exposed.

The other is that of false equivalence in the name of balance. India Today kept repeating that what happened on January 5 was not a question of “Left vs Right, but Right vs Wrong”. Such a formulation is not just disingenuous but also dangerous. It leaves open the question of who decides what and who is wrong and what and who is right. Not surprisingly, in Mumbai, this was picked up by the BJP spokesperson Shaina NC and displayed on a banner outside her office on Marine Drive. 

It is unfortunate that some in the media are linking the violence of January 5 in JNU to the events of the previous days. While the latter establish the long simmering tension between ideologically opposed student groups (nothing new in JNU), the violence on the evening of January 5 speaks to a planned attack by students and outsiders, of a university administration that failed to intervene, and of the police that just stood by and allowed the mayhem to continue. There is simply no equivalence between the two.  

By attempting to be balanced and condemning all sides equally, the media is simply reinforcing the narrative of the state. That is not our job.

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