The dubious ethics of linking to dubious videos

BY SHUMA RAHA| IN Media Practice | 05/07/2016
The case of Hasan Suroor, the British vigilante group Unknown TV, and the mainstream Indian media.
SHUMA RAHA reports

 

 On June 24 a UK court formally dropped the case against Hasan Suroor, a British journalist of Indian origin, who had been charged with online sexual grooming last November. Suroor, who writes for a range of British and Indian publications, was charged after Unknown TV, a vigilante paedophile hunter group, shot a “sting” video on him and posted it online.

That video was widely publicised, not just on social media, but also by India’s mainstream media and news portals. It showed the frail, 65-year-old Suroor being bullied and heckled by a few burly men, allegedly because they had entrapped him into conversing with online, and then trying to meet, a fictitious underage girl. It was sensational all right — a respected, elderly journalist implicated in what appeared to be a case of paedophilia. And Indian media, including publications such as The Times of India, Hindustan Times, Outlook, DNA, Huffington Post India and many others, snapped it up and displayed it on their websites without a second thought.

Seven months down the line, the case against Suroor has collapsed for lack of evidence. The prosecution’s main witness, Unknown TV’s Jordan Clarke, did not turn up to testify. Saroor has been pronounced “not guilty” and the court has also directed the Crown Prosecution Service to pay him his full legal costs of more than   £ 23,000. In his remarks, the judge said that Suroor had been subjected to a tirade of abuse by the complainant and that the video was almost “sadistic” in nature.

While Suroor stands vindicated, his case throws up serious questions about the ethics of media organisations publishing unauthenticated sting videos that have the potential to wreck a person’s reputation forever. The charges against him may have been dismissed, bringing legal closure to what must have been a period of untold trauma for him. However, thanks to the video, links to which were carried by almost every major Indian media site, its memory in the public mind — and hence the stain on his reputation — may linger a long time. As Suroor remarks (see Interview), “Even after the court has upheld my innocence and my 'upstanding' character, I've heard people saying: "But we saw you in video saying this..."

Suroor feels that the least Indian media organisations should have done was to have carried a disclaimer that they could not guarantee the authenticity of the video.

He has a point. 

The video did, of course, look pretty black against Suroor.  And the alleged offence, paedophilia, was a serious one. But it is also a fact that such sting videos are often tweaked and edited to convey an impression that may not be true. Naturally, the Indian media was entirely within its rights to report on Suroor’s arrest and the charges against him. But publishing an unauthenticated video without any disclaimers shows a blithe disregard for the possibility that it may have been manipulated. And the possibility that if it were to be discredited in the future, a man’s reputation would have been irreparably damaged for no reason at all.          

The absence of a disclaimer seems doubly astounding because even a cursory Internet search on Unknown TV, the vigilante group that targeted Suroor, suggests that their methods are dubious. (The way they intimidate and threaten Suroor in the video is deeply disturbing as well.) The British police too have expressed concerns about groups like Unknown TV that ensnare suspected paedophiles and mete out their brand of summary justice, often ruining lives in the process.

A sting operation — the process of catching an alleged offender in the act by deception — is in any case morally and ethically fraught. Whether it is carried out by investigative journalists, law enforcement officials, or self-styled vigilantes, luring a person into committing a crime and secretly recording it on audio or video tape, is a seriously problematic method of building a case against a so-called criminal. It is dishonest, it verges on the illegal, and the only way one can justify it is that it is conducted in public interest. And that outweighs the ethical concerns.    

By extension, a media site or a television channel that decides to run with a sting also needs to make a judgement call: Does publishing a tawdry, unauthenticated video clip serve genuine public interest — enough to override concerns that it could turn out to be dodgy and hence cause grave injustice to the person?

So why did Indian media sites jump to publish the Suroor video without carrying even a basic health warning that it could not vouchsafe its authenticity? Outlook magazine and Hindustan Times, two mainstream publications whose websites had links to the video at the time of writing (others have taken it down by now) could offer some answers. Outlook did not respond to emails in this regard. But in an email response to The Hoot, Nic Dawes, Chief Content Officer, Hindustan Times (HT) had this to say:

"HT does not as a matter of course conduct sting operations, and we are of course aware of the ethical concerns that may arise from using such material when it has been gathered and processed by third parties. A disclaimer will in many cases be appropriate. In other situations where the authenticity of sting recording is very seriously in question, we are unlikely to use it at all.

In the case involving Hasan Suroor, however, there is no debate as to the authenticity of the video. The footage is clearly genuine. Nor is their any suggestion that it has been deceptively edited. Furthermore, the video formed part of the evidence in a criminal prosecution. With those considerations in mind, we feel justified in having linked to it.

It is also worth noting that the bar for proof of a crime is higher than the bar for evidence of questionable behaviour. Mr Suroor is innocent of a crime. Readers can draw their own conclusion from the recording and our coverage as to whether his conduct was above reproach.”

One appreciates Dawes’s point that “the bar for proof of a crime is higher than the bar for evidence of questionable behaviour”. And it is clear that the editors at HT stand by their decision. They consider the video to be “clearly genuine” — so where’s the need for a disclaimer?

It’s a debatable stand, but it will likely resonate with other media houses that similarly published the video without any disclaimers. 

The point, however, is that irrespective of whether or not the video was genuine, no media site stopped to verify its authenticity before rushing to post links to it. And that’s a telling comment on contemporary media practice. In today’s intensely competitive media environment, there seems to be no time for such journalistic due diligence. If there is a sting video out there that demonstrates financial, sexual or any other kind of sensational misconduct, it is a rare media organisation that will step back from it because it cannot at once be verified. To do so would be to lose the eyeballs and fall back in the race to be first with the news. In the mad desperation to stand out, sensationalism often trumps truth.

An example of this “gotcha!” brand of journalism was on glorious display in February this year when television channels Times Now, Zee TV and NewsX aired video clips that allegedly showed JNU students union president Kanhaiya Kumar shouting anti-India slogans. The footage landed Kumar in jail on charges of sedition and whipped up a shrill, polarising debate on who is anti-national and who is not. One month later, a forensic lab in Hyderabad confirmed that two videos that showed Kanhaiya Kumar raising pro-Pakistan slogans had in fact been morphed.

“The intensification of competition in the media has led to a lowering of standards,” says Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Editor, Economic and Political Weekly and  author of  the book Media Ethics: Truth, Fairness and Objectivity. “In the pressure to be first with a story, you cut corners, you don’t make that extra effort.

This is what happens when news becomes commercialised, adds Seema Mustafa, editor of online newspaper, The Citizen, and a member of the Editors Guild of India. “You are not improving the product by rushing to publish.” Mustafa feels that media organisations erred in posting links to the Suroor video. “You don’t publish a dubious video on the basis of some kind of a dirty sting and completely tear down the reputation of a man,” she says. “There was a need to exercise restraint here.”   

One notable example of Indian media exercising self-restraint was when a sex tape featuring Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi surfaced in 2012. Both mainstream media as well as the news portals gave it a wide berth. Indeed, to do otherwise would have been a gross invasion of privacy of two consenting adults. Of course, Singhvi also took the precaution of getting a restraining order slapped on the India Today group, which had the CD in its possession. The footage lurks online to this day, but thankfully, no responsible media site has ever carried links to it.

Suroor, who is considering suing Unknown TV, points out that the British media did not report on his case at all, and that they do not usually report such stories — unless they involve prominent public personalities or celebrities — until the case goes to trial. That said, the British media does not exactly cover itself in glory when it comes to invading the privacy of individuals. Just because one is a celebrity, one does not automatically forfeit the right not to have one’s privacy violated by a ravening media out to get that exclusive shot, that seedy sex tape.

Suroor’s case does give occasion to pause and reflect on the principles that ought to guide the publication of a so-called sting operation. More so because, like it or not, stings have become a part and parcel of journalistic practice in India today. Mustafa of the Editors Guild reveals that the body plans to update its code of ethics, especially with regard to stings. “It needs to be relooked at in light of all that is happening today,” she says.

 Whether or not Indian media abides by that code and adopts a modicum of restraint vis-a-vis stings is another story.

 

----------------------------

 

Interview: ‘I'm not accusing the Indian media of deliberate malice — but of lazy journalism and sensationalisation’ 

Hasan Suroor spoke to Shuma Raha over email. Excerpts from the interview:

 

Q: Did any Indian newspaper or media site get in touch with you for your comments before they published the video?

A: Apart from Huffington Post India, no one contacted me before publishing the video.

 

Q: Do you feel Indian media should not have posted links to the video?  

A: I had remained silent all these months because the case was sub judice. But in my private communications to my journalist friends I had expressed concern about publishing an unauthenticated video. In my opinion, if you publish something whose accuracy you're not able to vouchsafe you carry a disclaimer. Media reports in Britain always carry health warnings while reporting allegations against a person. 

Again, I have no problem that Indian media carried the news of my arrest which was confirmed by the police. My objection is to their carrying the video which has done a lot of (and lasting) damage to my reputation. Even after the court has upheld my innocence and my "upstanding" character, I've heard people saying: "But we saw you in video saying this..."

It is hard to convince people that the video was manipulated to make it appear that I was agreeing with their claims. The fact that the group refused to give us raw footage of the video as we had demanded confirms this. 

I'm not accusing the Indian media of deliberate malice — but of lazy journalism and sensationalisation.

 

Q: Is Indian media  insensitive to the ethical concerns in reporting a case like this?

A: Trial by media is routine in India because defamation laws are very weak and also because there's widespread ignorance about them.  In Britain, every sensitive story is vetted by their lawyers. I was reporting for the London Times from Delhi briefly in 2014 when the RK Pachauri story about sexual harassment broke. I was asked to do a story but it was not cleared by the paper's legal team. It was reported only after he was charged and the case went to court.

 

Q: You say the British media did not report your case at all. Would they have left it alone if the person involved was a prominent UK journalist? 

A: If a prominent UK journalist had been involved, his arrest would have been reported. Even if they carried such a video they would have spoken to the vigilante group, the accused or his family/friends and given a background of the vigilante group.

In my case, Newslaundry.com made an attempt to speak to UnknownTV and someone there demanded £600 for an interview. 

(Our addition--The Economic Times too carried an interview with a member of Unknown TV, where it repeated its boast that it had secured 22 arrests so far.—Ed.)

 

Q: Do you plan to initiate defamation proceedings against Unknown TV?

A: I'm considering suing Unknown TV but at the moment its leader is untraceable. The fact that the court has ordered my full legal costs to be paid is a recognition as my solicitor has said in his statement that the case should never have been brought in the first place.

 

 

 

(Shuma Raha is a senior journalist based in Delhi)

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