Sting Operations and the Ethics of Journalism

Author: 

Shoma A. Chatterji

What is a sting operation? It is a part of what could be called “new age journalism,” with debatable ethical issues involved. It is more effective on television as a form of journalism, and in the print media it is generally referred to as an “expose.”  In legal parlance, a sting operation is understood as a design concocted in collaboration with the editor, perhaps the publisher with vested interests, a journalist, and a videographer. The smartphone is now a viable alternative to the videocam which makes it easier for the journalist doing the story to retain his/her sole claim to the story as there is no videographer involved. But again, the videographer as the “second” person doing the operation along with the journalist can give the story the second “back-up” it needs to prove its authenticity. Sting operations are fraught with questions of authenticity, integrity, and objectivity that are difficult to sustain because the journalist is a normal human being filled with his biases for or against someone or something.
Divya Kukreti, a concerned citizen says, “Sting operations provide us with evidence that can be used against a particular person or organisation to prove them guilty in court....[O]ur legal system works only on the basis of evidence, and in most of the cases due to lack of evidence, the suspect is not punished.” But the most ethical question is of integrity. How ethical is it for a journalist to conduct a sting operation on persons who do not have a clue about being videographed, because permission has not been taken because it would never have been given even if asked prior to the operation? Does not such sting violate the subject’s right to privacy?
The right to privacy derives from an English Common Law maxim that asserts “Every man’s house is a castle.” According to The Hoot, 
“Every individual has a right to privacy under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. However, the degree of the right to privacy varies from person to person. A public figure who functions under public gaze as an emissary/representative of the public cannot expect to be afforded the same degree of privacy as a private person. The press can bring the acts of these personalities to public knowledge.”1 
Sadly, sting operations are mostly indulged in by television channels in cases of what the channel in question decides to be a case of moral turpitude. This may be a noted person in the public domain such as it happened in the case of Swami Paramahamsa Nithyananda, who was “allegedly caught on camera in a ‘compromising’ position with Tamil actress Ranjitha.” The video clips were run on a noted satellite channel in the south and “the actress had to go into hiding while the ashram was attacked by a mob.”2  Besides being a gross violation of two consenting adults’ right to privacy, there was no public cause behind this story. The only thing it offered was instant titillation through sensational and sensitive news. There was nothing to be gained through this so-called exposure at the local or national level. The only “good” that might have occurred was in the unmasking of the pretentious God Man with hundreds of disciples and followers.
In the News blog observes, 
“The US Department of Justice’s Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services publishes a series of empirically based manuals for the police. On 3 December 2007, the manual in a story entitled ‘Sting Operations’ described the pros and cons of such undercover operations, and explained the various deceptive techniques and how they could be adapted to different kinds of crimes. The manual concludes as follows: ‘Sting operations can be expensive, are demanding on personnel and generally offer limited relief from crime and disorder problems. This is not to say that they should never have been used. They may be beneficial when used in concert with other police responses known to provide long-term solutions to the problem, such as a tool to collect information that will help in mounting other preventive operations. Clearly, they do provide some attractive benefits to police departments, particularly by facilitating investigation, increasing arrests and fostering a cooperative spirit between persecutors and police, all of which result in favourable publicity. However, you need to assess these benefits against the negative ethical and legal problems associated with sting operations, especially the finding that in some cases they increase crime and in the long term, with some exception, generally do not reduce it.’”3  
But this interpretation and analysis refers to the police departments and not to media functionaries or media practice. This is because in the United States, nobody except the Federal Bureau of Investigation is legally permitted to execute sting operations; the media is not. In India, the common link that the layman finds between a sting operation and the persons who carry it out is the media and not the police. Besides even if the police are involved, is “favourable publicity” what a sting operation is all about? Should sting operations by the police and related departments include “attractive benefits”? Does this not defeat the public welfare-oriented purpose behind sting operations?
For the media in general, sting operations could be manufactured to raise the TRPs of a news channel with so-called sensational stories with pictures that are titillating. This reminds us of the widespread television expose of the affair between Professor Matuk Nath Chaudhary of Patna University and his young research student. The satellite channels were flooded with sensational and distasteful clips gobbled up by the television audience everywhere. Did this serve any larger purpose except titillation? What kind of journalism was this? Why should the media care about the private affairs of private people? On the aftermath of this sting exposure, the media practically played into the hands of this adulterous couple who got the publicity they were probably looking for on a golden plate. They came on panel interviews on television, giving comments on the “spiritual” and “platonic” nature of their relationship. What did such a sting operation gain? In the long run, Chaudhary lost his job and the audience gained nothing. It was journalism reflecting very poor taste indeed.
A Supreme Court ruling on April 24 this year by a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice P. Sathasivam has made sting operations almost impossible for the media. According to this ruling, anyone who engages in a string operation does it at his own risk, and can be charged as an accused in the case by the investigating agency and face trial under Section 12 of the Prevention of Corruption Act for abetment to commit an offence. The Supreme Court placed a citizen’s right to privacy over exposing of social evils. This ruling stands in contrast to Justice Shiv Narayan Dhingra’s Delhi High Court ruling in a case accusing two journalists, Aniruddha Bahal and Suhasini Raj, who had “conducted a sting operation on some MPs in order to expose their corrupt ways.”4 
Whether a sting operation is really a sting operation or whether it is a dramatised manipulation of truth is a delicate issue open to debate. If a media organisation decides to keep away from sting operations when it is strongly needed, some valid truths might remain unexposed to the public. Alternately if a media organisation decides to execute a sting operation, this could: (a) lead to controversy; (b) invite prolonged and expensive law suits; and (c) raise questions about the authenticity of the operation among the viewers not linked to the story at all. Once the novelty of a sting operation story is over, the fascination fades.
The term “sting” was popularised in the Robert Redford and Paul Newman-starred Hollywood film The Sting (1973). It was released in India at a time when no one understood the meaning of the term, and those who watched the film (which includes this writer) walked out of the theatre not having understood anything. It featured two men who attempt to con a mafia boss of a massive amount of money. But as viewers did not get a clue of what was happening, the meaning of the term remained unknown to Indian viewers.
In India, it was Tehelka that augured the practice of sting operations and gained tremendous reader mileage, popularity, and circulation through these operations. Beginning with “Operation West End,” it went on with similar operations that resulted in public anger on the one hand and cleansing on the other. Operation West End was the brainchild of special correspondent Mathew Samuel. The sting videos of March 2001 showed several defence officials, officers, and politicians from the ruling coalition discussing and accepting bribes. Tehelka placed two reporters as arms dealers peddling “fourth generation, thermal handheld cameras” on behalf of a British company (West End). The president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the mainstay of the government, was shown taking INR 100,000 (roughly USD 2,500). He resigned the next day.
Another example which substantiates the efficacy of sting operations is that of NE Bangla, a Bengali news channel. Its news editor Biswa Majumdar organised a sting operation on Mohammad Ilyas, who was shown accepting a bribe of INR10,000 from reporters posing as NGO workers, in exchange for his raising questions in the state Assembly. This expose forced Ilyas to resign from the Assembly; he was also suspended from the party.
But there were questionable offshoots to capture the eyeballs of a gossip-hungry television audience where the sting operations neither had any sting nor were they operations but were manufactured for sensationalism. One example is the sting operation conducted on actor Shakti Kapoor by a lady journalist. This journalist, whose name and credentials were never substantiated by the television channel concerned, posed as a wannabe star approaching Kapoor for roles in films. Kapoor was shown asking for sexual favours as quid pro quo. It created a furore and won on its sensationalising ticket but faded away when the journalist concerned disappeared into oblivion. The so-called sting operation had no flesh or blood because the casting couch is a long-known entity in Bollywood cinema, and Shakti Kapoor hardly had a career of his own to be able to make careers for others.
However, in the present scenario where political corruption is at its peak, it is difficult to even discover which sting operations are politically motivated, which are truly designed to cleanse the society, or which are actually the fruits of concocted journalism funded by different political parties, their corporate sponsors, or both.