Oh journalism, where is thy sting?

IN Media Practice | 06/05/2005
Oh journalism, where is thy sting?


The reason why sting operations are so popular in India is because of the appallingly low level of institutionalisation


Reprinted from the Indian Express, May 6, 2005


Dipankar Gupta


Why are ‘‘stings’’ so widely appreciated in India? Also, consider the following: stings do not really make reputations for broadcasters in the west where the techniques of surreptitious recordings are much more advanced. Yet, in India, from the Tehelka exposure to the concealed interview of the blundering Mumbai film actor, there is a popular belief that a good job has been done in the true spirit of investigative journalism. Without discussing the code of journalism what is of concern here is why western journalists are unmusical to such ‘‘sting’’ like operations.

In fact, the instances mentioned above are not really examples of true sting operations either. A true sting is when an unwilling victim is lured into a net to do something uncharacteristic in order to bring grief to that person and satisfaction to the plotter. A true sting is a staged operation from start to finish as it creates an unreal world that steadily entraps the victim. Thus, hidden cameras that catch people doing wrong things or speaking up in an unguarded fashion do not really qualify as stings. 

Nevertheless, why are these stalking operations such instant hits with readers and television viewers in India? It is not as if the laws of privacy are that much more stringent in Europe and America than they are here. Elsewhere too, if the intent is not to ‘‘wrongfully’’ damage the reputation of anyone then a lot of latitude is allowed in taping and photographing people in the name of protecting national or public interests.

In some ways the delight with which these exposes are greeted in India is because of the low levels of institutionalisation in this country. As inDIViduals we feel humiliated, slighted and taken advantage of by those who are more powerful than us, but there is no institutional redress against all of this. That we do not push for it either in a systematic way is because we too benefit from it when it comes to dealing with those who are weaker than us. More to the point: when institutions that are supposed to catch corrupt people look the other way and somebody else steps in to the breach and exposes them, there is a general sense of satisfaction at the popular level. Exposures thus gain enormously in esteem when public officials are sitting on their hands while the rich and famous engage in blatant acts of corruption and impropriety. Nobody at that point wants to scrutinise the methods by which these exposes against those at the top were conducted. The Indian public is simply delighted that at least the corrupt have been shamed-even if they have not always been legally charged.

For example, everybody knows about corrupt politicians, yet law enforcement agencies refuse to act against them. Recently, Uma Shankar Misra, head of the CBI, openly declared that the organisation that he is in charge of is not really an autonomous agency as it was constitutionally decreed to be. There is political interference at all levels, and that is why they are unable to do their job. Of course, there have been legions of bureaucrats and policemen who, after retirement, have gone on and on about corruption but did little against it while in tenure. But Uma Shankar Misra is one case (the other being James Lyngdoh) where a serving officer has complained about politicians corrupting public offices and institutions.

Banks are burdened by non-performing assets that amount to tens of thousands of crores of rupees, but major defaulters have not yet been charged for not honouring the loan agreements. A bank is a public institution that must abide by public norms and rules. There are clear laws in this regard, not to mention the codes of transparency and corporate governance that are much talked about these days. Even so the big fish get away because, well, they are big. Non-performing assets are not a private matter between friends, or between a loan shark and an errant defaulter. In this case the amounts are mind-boggling, regular banks are involved (some of them are even in the public sector), and, what is more, ordinary people and humble citizens are the ones paying for waywardness of the rich. This being the case it would be quite natural to expect that these major defaulters who have built business empires should be brought to book. At the very least, their names should be made known to the public whose money these business tycoons are playing around with. It is often said that should these names be known the edifice of the private sector would be shaken at the foundations. When there are thousands of crores lying as non-performing assets with banks, imagine the incalculable damage that is being done to the public. But only last week, India’s finance minister went on record saying that it would be incorrect to reveal the names of these defaulters as business would be affected.

Situations like these set the stage for appreciating sting like operations in India. It is the failure of public institutions that make exposes of the variety that Tehelka has spawned so attractive at the popular level. Without saying that law enforcement agencies in the west are perfect, it cannot be denied that it is not part of the regular regimen of notables in those countries to calmly break the law and get away with it. Neither Margaret Thatcher nor Tony Blair could use their prestige to keep the law from prosecuting their sons. Watergate happened in America and a sitting President had to pay for it. Recall that even ‘‘Deep Throat’’, who leaked the information on Watergate, was not captured by hidden cameras or tapes. As the law is more effective, journalists have to aspire to higher levels of professionalism in western democracies.

The writer is professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
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