R​anjona Banerji​: The ethics (or lack of it) of sting operations​

23 Jun,2017

By R​anjona Banerji


​I have, as a journalist, been opposed to “sting” operations. Professional ethics entails declaring who we are to the people we question. We are not a branch of the government’s investigating agencies — and even they have rules about such operations. The most recent sting operation we discussed led to an army man committing suicide. What price “truth”?

Now S P Udayakumar, a well-known anti-nuclear activist, has written a letter to the Press Council of India, complaining about a sting operation conducted on him by RepubicTV. Normally, in this column I defend journalists when they are picked upon, harassed, when people do not understand how the job works. But given the nature of sting operations, one has to look at Udayakumar’s complaint seriously.

He has long been on the radar of the government – including the previous UPA – and of “nationalist” journalists who feel any criticism of government schemes is an act of high treason. Udayakumar and his group have spent years objecting to Koodankulam nuclear plant at Kumbakonam. This has led to several skirmishes with the pro-nuclear lobby, with the pro-nuclear energy lobby which is not the same as the pro-nuclear weapons lobby and other groups whether with vested interests or different ideologies.
Judging from Udayakumar’s complaint, RepublicTV tried to lure him into accepting foreign aid which he is blocked from doing:
“On April 9, 2017 she (Republic TV reporter Shweta Kothari, who represented herself as Shweta Sharma, a research scholar at Cardiff University who wanted help with her dissertation), requested me to stop by her hotel room as she had a few more questions. There she told me that “one of her British professors” was very keen on supporting our struggle against the Koodankulam nuclear power plant. I told her that we did not accept money from foreigners and our movement had no bank account also. She then asked me if there was any other way of donating money to us. I told her that my personal account was frozen and that even our party account could not receive foreign funds. So I said she could not donate money from abroad but her parents could do it here in India if she sent the money to them. I also mentioned clearly that I would give proper receipt and the money will be accounted for. I also informed her that we were not interested in getting foreign funds.”

This is apparently what was shown on RepublicTV on June 20, including a panel discussion in which Udayakumar took part from Kumbakonam where he was part of a protest. So far, this is not completely objectionable although it is unethical. However while Udayakumar was in Kumbakonam, Udayakumar says that a Republic TV reporter called Sanjeev went to his house in Nagercoil and harassed his parents, aged 85 and 82. He stood outside his house from 2 to 11 pm, insisted that Udayakumar’s parents, wife and schoolgoing son respond to the sting operation. Apparently, this zealous reporter went back the next day, continued his harassment of the family and got into a fight with an 85

​-​yea​r-​old man. He then complained on TV that Udayakumar – who was not there apparently – had “scolded” him.
Any sensible journalist knows that very little of this whole story constitutes meaningful journalism. The sting did not prove that Udayakumar took foreign funds which is he not permitted to do. It did not prove that Udayakymar’s stance on nuclear energy is unethical. It in fact constituted a clash of two points of view with one view using unscrupulous means to try and prove that it is right.

One is sure that Republic TV has its own version of what happened. But anyone who has watched Republic TV for even five minutes knows that what it practices veers from being non-journalism to teetering on the very thin end of bad journalism.

A sad, sad day for us all if this

​is ​indeed the number one English news channel in India as it claims to be.
As for Udayakumar, no such complaint

​with the Press Council of India ever amounts to anything. He would be better off taking other recourse, starting with broadcasters’ associations to the courts for any semblance of justice.

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