IT was a sting all right. A sting that exposed a devious conspiracy by a new Malayalam TV news channel to ensnare a Minister. This is how the conspiracy played out. A woman journalist working in the channel cultivated a person purported to be the Minister over a period of time and inveigled him into telephonic sex talk with her. One such conversation between the two was then recorded by the caller, the woman journalist. The dialogue was then converted into a monologue by removing all that the woman said, whatever was meant to draw him out and egg him on, and keeping only what the so-called Minister said, so much so that one would wonder whether this Minister character was given to bouts of steamy soliloquy. This audio track of his erotic rave and rant was the channel’s inaugural offering to the public, on the day of its launch. To give it a semblance of a public-interest cause, unspecific misleading hints were dropped that the Minister was seeking sexual gratification from a woman who approached him for a favour.
The sting called that bluff. It also exposed the more than unfair, in fact criminal, trade practice indulged in by the channel—by using its manufactured sleaze to destroy its targeted victim’s dignity and public reputation—driven, no doubt, by the ambition to hoist itself up there on the Television Rating Point (TRP) charts even on day one. The sting pierced through the grandstanding and stonewalling by the channel. It persisted in the face of the counter thrusts by the channel, wielding the shield of press freedom and investigative journalism. It did not defer or yield to the stereotype that the politician at the centre of it must after all be the guilty party—a stereotype the perpetrators of this perfidy must have been banking on. When offence as defence, and then error of judgment as excuse, wilted before the unrelenting and insistent probe mounted by the sting, the shield turned into a fig leaf, and when that too fell away with a dismal admission on the channel that it was a put-on job, a pathetic self-nakedness was all there was left to see—with no sex talk, this time, to spice it up.
It was a collective public sting on a news channel. It was a new democratic manifestation of sting. Online and offline, civil society, women in various walks of life and particularly women journalists, public figures cutting across party lines, and even an overwhelming part of the news media, prosecuted the sting. They were asking the right probing questions, they were outraged by the injustice of it all, they were not going to allow a fatuous claim of press freedom rescue a blatant violation of a person’s right to privacy and his defamation through deception. The hierarchy of probability in terms of vulnerability was reversed. If this could happen to a Minister how do the common people protect themselves against the voyeuristic depredations of the press? What happens when the press becomes the moral brigade? These concerns, going by the tenor of the response across the board to this faux news scoop, seemed to override the faith in the natural role and right of the press to take on the powerful on behalf of the common man.
The funny part of it is that the channel thought it was doing the sting. And it was the one stung instead. The sad part, apart from the irredeemable damage done to the Minister, who promptly resigned, is that the channel’s self-serving irresponsibility has put the already strained credibility of the fourth estate at further risk. It has again brought to the fore the fragile nature of the relationship between the press and the public. The disconnect between the two has been growing and has reached a stage where even in a case, unlike the present one, where the press, in what it believes to be the public interest, is pitted against a powerful force, the odds are that the benefit of doubt in the same public’s mind could go against it.
The results for 2017 of the annual Trust Barometer survey conducted by the influential global communications marketing firm, Edelman, show that across the sampling of 28 countries, public trust in the four public institutions of government, media, business and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is collapsing. The decline of trust in the Media, with a fall of four points, is more drastic than in the other three—at one point each for both government and business, and two for NGOs—and is now at an all-time low. Although India belongs to, in fact leads, a small group of countries (among them China, Indonesia, United Arab Emirates and Singapore) which bucks this international trend, and where the public emerges more trusting of the four institutions, the media fares poorer than the other three. In India the trust in government has shot up by 10 points between 2016 and 2017, that in NGOs by seven points between the two years, and in Business by five points, whereas the trust in media shows a relatively lower rise of three points since last year and is actually lower by four points from 2015.
So when things are not exactly going too well for the news media, when the distance between trust and distrust in the fourth estate seems just a matter of a few steps, what we don’t need is such counterfeiting of media currency and credibility. It becomes important, in this context, to revisit and re-interrogate the peculiar brand of journalism called “sting”. It may be unexceptionable journalistic practice, but in actual practice has often proved suspect in its intent and dubious in its methodology. The sting is not a higher form of journalism. It is journalism of the last resort. It is a subset of investigative journalism. It is a form of deception investigative journalism is compelled to take to in extremis because there is no other means of public disclosure in the larger public interest. Compelling public interest is its sole raison d’etre and litmus test; its extenuating circumstance. It is the exception, never the rule, in journalism. You do not begin a story or coverage with a sting; you arrive at it if and when, despite all legitimate means and rigour of investigation, evidence for a story that must be told —in the public interest—remains inaccessible because a vested interest is keeping it so.
Eager beaver sting operations, sting as a method ab initio , invariably trip up and deteriorate into low-level voyeurism or vicarious entertainment, often wreaking havoc on reputations that had no earthly reason to be wrecked. What the TV news channel did was plain mean and perverse, let alone have any vestige of journalistic ethics. What did its version of sting set out to show or prove? That a septuagenarian can have sexual drive? That his private expression of it to his consensual partner (or partner posing to be so) can be inelegant or even gross? (Whether sex talk, howsoever private or intimate, can or needs to have literary finesse or be couched in politically proper language is another marginal discussion that emerged from this episode.)
This was no sting by any stretch of journalistic imagination. It was a fly on the wall unashamedly prying into the very private behaviour of a person in his very private time and space. The news channel then took recourse, in discussions on other TV channels, to journalistic jargon to make it appear that all this was part of some occupational hazard. It said it had to remove the woman’s voice from the audio track to protect the source. Protection of source after all is a journalist’s elementary duty. It carried the dissemblance and fabrication even further, describing the woman as a housewife, then as a widow, and said at one stage that it would disclose the woman’s identity if the judicial commission appointed to go into the whole affair required it to do so. All this was before its clumsily constructed story collapsed under the weight of peer and public pressure and censure, and it had to admit that there was no aggrieved woman in the picture in the first place, and that one of its own woman journalists had set this honey trap. The moral of this news-story-that-never-was and for such flies on walls looking to lay honey traps is, as the saying goes, that the wise fly settles on the sugar, not on the honey—lest it gets stuck in its own trap.