“Journalism can never be silent: that is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air.”
The advent of televisions into the comforts and confines of our homes saw communication getting very personal. But little did we realize that we were setting the stage for an industry which would thrive to serve the undying quench of viewer’s demand for sordid information. The now to be known Global village was facing one of its most imminent dilemma’s; the question of “Privacy over Publicity”. Were we willing to compromise on privacy, to feed the abyssal depths of one’s quest for worldly enlightenment?
The answers lay strewn over our television screens. Answers staring us in the face, invoking in us a sense of shamelessness, and for many a feeling of fulfillment and contentment. For when incidents, like that of the reporters of tehelka.com masquerading as arms dealers, secretly filming their `transactions’ on the sale of a fictitious product to the Defence Ministry in 2001 surface, it only goes to prove the level of media indulgence in private lives. Their act was defended widely, as one that was in the larger public interest, as it exposed corruption in a key organ of the government. Sting journalism was the buzzword, and we were ready to enter a world never seen or heard of before.
Sting journalism has ventured into newer vistas. The contours of sting journalism have since expanded with media persons using spy cameras to expose wrongs in all walks of life. In its expose, tehelka.com used commercial sex workers as the price for “fixing” its fictitious deal with Army officials and claimed that it had to do so in order to win the officials’ confidence. The website argued that the sex workers were “arranged” by a politician who acted as a middleman between the undercover reporters and the Army officials. Yet, the issue led to a profound dilemma within the media about the ethics of sting journalism and the violation of morally acceptable standards of the profession.
India TV, a private television channel, has been a contender in this rat race by airing sting operations one after another. The first was telecast exposing the sex racket prevalent amongst sadhus. The telecast led to the arrest of the sadhus. The channel obviously got the story using the spy cam, as neither the sadhus nor the women would admit to such relationships. Was it a violation of privacy? Yes. But there was a genuine public purpose that seemed to justify it.
The second story was aired a few days later which showed three Bihar politicians in a hotel room with sex workers allegedly supplied by a contractor-mafia in return for favours. The channel named the politicians shown in the film, but blanked out the unsuitable portions. The channel announced to the viewers that these were the politicians who sought votes promising empowerment of women but used public money the way they did.
The Information and Broadcasting Ministry described the film as obscene and offensive and sought an explanation from the channel for airing it. India TV denied that the programme was vulgar or indecent .India TV’s editor-in-chief Rajat Sharma also denied that the channel encroached on the privacy of politicians. Rather, the objective, he said, was to bring to light their hypocrisy and misuse of public money through the contractor-mafia. The channel’s third story, was the most controversial as it exposed the “casting couch” in Hindi cinema. It featured its reporter, who approached Hindi film villain Shakti Kapoor and television host Aman Verma as an aspiring actor and sought their help to secure suitable roles.
Rajat Sharma said the channel would use sting operations only as a last resort, after exploring other options to get a story. “We are not going overboard; we would use the sting with utmost caution, and without hurting sensibilities.”
It is debatable whether India TV’s controversial stories exposing sex and sleaze is justifiable. In ultimate case analysis we need to realise that even while exercising one’s right to information, the media must predefine its level of involvement with the lives of public figures, because as much as revealing the ugliness of reality seems to be foremost in their agenda, the question of respecting ones privacy must also be take into consideration. The public shall always seek for a sense of familiarity with celebrity life, their quest undying. But the media bears a larger boulder over its shoulder of limiting that sense of familiarity. As Oscar Wilde did summarise in a few lines
“The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything. Except what is worth knowing. Journalism, conscious of this, and having tradesman-like habits, should intelligently supply their demands.”
Amanjit Singh Khanna
(image by: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stitch/27527907/)