Year of the fake sting

BY Mannika Chopra| IN Media Practice | 30/12/2007
Now the fake Khurana sting has triggered a credibility crisis in the world of spycams, secret recordings and phone tappings.
MANNIKA CHOPRA on how sting journalism came to grief in 2007.

Never before has the Indian media community been so blessed. The number of media organisations is increasing and being filled by professionals whose salaries have improved vastly. But what has set this year apart is the presence of fake stings that exposed the media¿s fault lines and unspooled a much-needed bout of introspection.


In late August Uma Khurana, then an unknown maths teacher at a government run school located in Daryaganj, was ¿found¿ forcing her high school students to become part of a prostitution ring.


The sting operation was aired on India Live, a 24-hour news channel that had recently been renamed. A teenage girl, claiming to be Khurana¿s pupil revealed her ordeal on camera to a supposedly enterprising reporter.


Minutes later a mob gathered outside the school, physically assaulted Khurana, set a car on fire and bayed for justice. Solely on the basis of the sting the police arrested the stunned teacher.


It took ten days for the police to discover that the sting had been cooked up and the teacher framed. The ¿student¿ was Rashmi Singh, an aspiring journalist, and the ¿reporter¿ was supposedly an accomplice of a person to whom Khurana owed money.


This was not the only example of a sting that had gone horribly wrong. Earlier this year three men had been arrested for trying to extort money from three Members of Parliament from Jharkhand by saying they were conducting a sting on behalf of reputed TV news channel Aaj Tak.


They said they would not hand over an incriminating undercover report if the politicians paid them. Ultimately they were nabbed.


Rajdeep Sardesai, CNN-IBN¿s editor-in-chief, writing in the Hindustan Times on the dominating presence of sting operations in TV journalism, recalled how he had been sent an SMS from Patna by a person who claimed he could provide the channel with 40 ready-to-hire stings.


"Trust me," the text message punned, "together we can create a Tehelka".


Sardesai dismissed the proposal but the offer did reveal that the public saw the media as an industry reeling under market pressure, and so desperate to make profit that it was willing to corrupt established news processes.


Today, sting journalism - also nicknamed stink journalism - has become such an accepted practice that media schools are beginning to offer specialised courses on it.


In a sense the Khurana episode was a disaster waiting to happen. Ever since Outlook magazine first went undercover to expose the presence of cricket match fixing and Tehelka, then a website, captured on camera senior politicians of the BJP-led NDA coalition accepting money for defence contracts, there has been a multiplier effect.


The Tehelka expose was undoubtedly the most influential story of 2001 - the union defence minister and the president of the BJP both resigned. Commenting presciently on the investigation then, editor Vir Sanghvi had felt that the moral ambivalence over the way facts were collected would come back and haunt the profession. And so it has.


Now there is a glut of stings in the electronic media and occasionally the print media too. Mostly outsourced, these undercover operations range from being legitimate exercises to expose official malpractices to voyeuristic devices used for promotion by upcoming media outlets to sheer fabrication.


Now the fake Khurana sting has triggered a credibility crisis in the world of spycams, secret recordings and phone tappings. It has compromised past and future stings and placed them in an ethical soup. Within the media collective it has raised questions about entrapment, about using deceit to pursue truth and has got the whole issue in a legal bind.


As undercover operations have escalated the public has developed a sense of doubt over the intent of stings. There is a realisation that a sting predicated on the whim of a journalist gives the media too much power. Today, sting fatigue, both within the press and within the nation has slowly begun to creep in.


The result is that genuine stings are starting to lose their power. Operation Cleanbowled, broadcast by Headlines Today recently on the factionalism within the national cricket selectors and the Indian cricket team, failed to ignite a debate.


Tehelka¿s most recent undercover operation in October, Operation Kalank, detailing how closely Gujarat¿s top leadership was involved in the massacre of thousands of Muslims in the horrific carnage of 2002, hardly created the expected ripple though broadcast on the eve of the Gujarat elections.


On the potential plus side, the Khurana fake sting¿s biggest contribution is that it has provided an opportunity for the media to come up with its own ethics code before the government steps in with regulations in the form of a new Broadcast Bill.


Already, while disposing of a petition over the Khurana case, the Delhi High Court has suggested that all sting operations be cleared by a committee set up by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry which would issue no objection certificates.


Unlike the West, which has very clear procedures that govern undercover investigations and has a well-defined code of ethics, Indian news organisations have no such external or internal rules. Here there is no clear law against sting operations nor is there a clear right to privacy.


In fact, technically, it is only the Pre-diagnostic Technique Amendment Act of 1994 that allows a sting. Under this law a journalist can go as a decoy to expose the use of an ultrasound for sex identification.


This is how Mangala Telang, a prominent Delhi-based gynaecologist, was caught last month on camera by a BBC undercover team agreeing to abort a female foetus.


Undercover reporting can produce memorable and meaningful journalism. It¿s up to the Indian media not to settle for anything less.

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