Ranjona Banerji: Efficacy of stings, ethics of channel put to question

26 Oct,2012

By Ranjona Banerji

 

The media increasingly finds itself at the receiving end as anti-corruption anger rises in India. After the India Today group faces legal action from Union law minister Salman Khurshid, it’s now the turn of Zee News and Congress MP and industrialist Naveen Jindal. The media either plays an independent role or is seen as a handmaiden of anti-corruption activists.

 

The Zee News-Jindal story is however extremely strange. About week ago, the Broadcast Editors’ Association removed Sudhir Chaudhary from both the post of treasurer as well as from primary membership of the organisation after complaints of extortion during a “sting operation” against Jindal. The sting was supposed to prove that Jindal had offered to bribe Zee News and Zee Business so that they wouldn’t carry news about Jindal’s involvement in the coal allocation scam. Jindal however claimed that Chaudhary (editor and business head of Zee News) and Samir Ahluwalia (editor of Zee Business) attempted to blackmail him, asking for Rs 100 crore in order to kill the story.

 

Yesterday saw Zee going on an offensive in its own defence with the rest of the media playing up the story or ignoring it.
Apart from the fact that this may or may not be the best publicity Zee was looking for as it celebrates its 20th anniversary, there are a couple of questions it has to answer. Chaudhary has the slightly unfortunate reputation of being CEO of Live India TV when it ran a fake sting against school teacher Uma Khurana. And, as The Hoot has pointed out, Chaudhary is both editor and business head of Zee News, never a happy or ethically stable job combination.

 

Once again however the efficacy and use of stings are called into question. Many tactics involved in a sting go against both journalistic ethics and procedures as well legal provisions. They also are, unfortunately, great blackmail tools. The history of stings in India has not really been one of great successes. Tehelka in its earlier avatar tried out several and certainly its most effective was the Westland defence deals sting which led to BJP president Bangaru Laxman going to jail eventually but only after a lot of hardship suffered by Tehelka. Most other stings – including by Tehelka – have destroyed reputations and added to salacious discourse but achieved little else. And all of them have raised questions about the fairness of stings.

 

Most news organisations steer away from stings for these very reasons. In the zeal to expose someone or something, very often it becomes like a witch hunt without giving the accused the opportunity for a defence. The news organisation has the option of turning its back on the story if it doesn’t pan out the way it was supposed to, leaving the accused at the mercy of India’s weak defamation laws.

 

Any journalistic expose, sting or otherwise, has to be backed by enough hard work and material to make it as solid as a case in court as possible to make it both effective and fair. If the motives are either born of self-righteous zeal or are more nefarious, journalism has flown out of the window. Objectivity has to be the keystone.

 

Unfortunately, many language news channels in India are known to use “stings” as a form of blackmail – whether for themselves or for their employers. It is difficult to decide from the evidence so far whether Jindal is indeed guilty of attempting to bribe or if the news channels are guilty of extortion.

 

What is clear though is that one more extremely uncomfortable question has been raised for the media to deal with.

 

 

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One response to “Ranjona Banerji: Efficacy of stings, ethics of channel put to question”

  1. Amit says:

    Ranjona
    You are doing a great column !Keep it coming