Monday, November 25, 2013

Sting Operations are not Investigative Journalism

                It may be sheer coincidence that the media in the past week was caught up with Tarun Tejpal and yet another sting operation that sought to paint the Aam Aadmi Pary black.  The coincidence, notwithstanding, there is a link between the two and therein is a reason for the media as a whole to introspect on the use of sting as journalistic practice. Tarun Tejpal, after all, is the one who put sting journalism on a pedestal and his enterprise gathered support, including the resources, from a cross section.
                One does find a fair number of those who hold his enterprise in high esteem and even argue that any discussion on the charges of molestation against him should not gloss over his contribution to journalism in the recent times. Well. It is a matter of one’s opinion as to whether the brand of journalism that he steered calls for celebration or not.
                Having said that, it is time we stop celebrating sting reports and stop confusing this with investigative journalism.  The first objection to sting operations is from an ethical concern. That deception is the first rule in such operations renders them unethical in the first place.
One may argue then that Ashwani Sarin’s news report in the 1980s (I bought Kamala for Rs. 5000), too was also of this nature and hence unethical. Well.  Sarin did not use technology of the kind Tejpal put to use in conducting what they called `Operation Westend’ to hold the then Defence Minister George Fernandes guilty of corruption in purchases. Incidentally, the recent one against individuals in the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party, by Media Sarkar, matches Tejpal’s in all aspects!
Recall the events that followed Tejpal’s operation in the 1990s. After the Justice Venkataswamy Commission’s probe (described as a whitewash) by the Congress, the Left and others who opposed the NDA then, the CBI investigation carried out after the Congress-led UPA came to power in 2004 too did not find evidence to corroborate Tejpal’s story. And yet, journalism in India was driven by more such sting operations, facilitated by the gizmos turning cheaper than at the time when Tejpal used them.
There was the one that Ajit Jogi sought to use against Dilip Singh Judeo and another when Bollywood was scandalized. We also saw this being resorted to by Amar Singh against Shanti Bhushan when the lawyer stood up with Anna Hazare in April-May 2011. It was revealed that the Compact Discs that were circulated were versions that had footages picked up from different sources and audio-bytes superimposed at some advanced edit suites. To cut a long story short, these sting operations were anything but journalism and certainly not investigative journalism.
This indeed is what seems to be the truth in the case of the recent video CDs involving the individuals from the Aam Aadmi Party. And there is indeed something eerie about the way the media in general and Television in particular treats this. There seems to be a celebration and an attempt, even if not conscious, to paint the AAP with the same brush as the established political parties: To convey that party politics is necessarily a cesspool and that anyone who enters the electoral scene is bound to turn corrupt.
This certainly was not there when Ashwani Sarin reported the incidence of women being sold for prostitution when he wrote his story in the 1980s. Or when Neerja Chaudhury wrote about the fate of the bonded labourers who were released from bondage just a few months before, she helped in the making of a law that declared rehabilitation of bonded labourers into a Constitutional right.
Similarly, when Arun Shourie exposed the Kuo Oil deal or the Indira Prathistan scandal, he did not resort to sting operations. N.Ram and Chitra Subramaniam unraveled the Bofors scandal by putting documents in the public domain. This indeed is investigative journalism. It may be true that all these scandals and those behind the deals managed to escape the law. And that is another story. The fact is that these attempts at investigation rendered the media into an important player in the making of our democracy.
It is time that investigative journalism is put on the rails. It will not be out of place to recall the story that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, both reporters for the Washington Post, in 1972. Also known as the Watergate Scandal, these two reporters, with support from Benjamin Bradley, their Editor, established the involvement of Richard Nixon, through his aides, in organizing a break-in at the headquarters of the rival Democrat’s headquarters to plant wads of currency! They relied on building from scratch.
Made into a film, All the President’s Men is indeed a lesson in the art and the skill of investigative journalism. Woodward and Bernstein did not indulge in any deception; and Benjamin Bradley did not ask them to do any. Bradley also did not conceal his political preference: That he stood by the Democrats and thus opposed to the Republican Nixon. But we do see him putting his two colleagues through all the rigours of investigative journalism.
It is time for the media in India to junk this business of sting operations and insist that the practice of investigative journalism is restored with all its rigour. This easy way out – sting operations – is not only a sham but will also contribute to the media losing its credibility and legitimacy. That will not be in the interest of our democracy.