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Truth behind the sting operations

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Sunanda K. Chavan
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Truth behind the sting operations - October 29th, 2010

Truth behind the sting operations

by Aniruddha Bahal

In 2000 when we started Tehelka we didn't want any heavy lumber in the newsroom. It was easy doing that because we controlled the purse strings and we could plot and re-plot various editorial machinations without the breath of an accountant or a superior editorial being washing over us.
It was an unaccustomed space for myself particularly.

Capital, imagination, time, and the green signal all fusing together at my desk providing me with the right fuel mix to plan and execute, first, the cricket match fixing story and, later, Operation Westend. The opportunity was there just for ourselves and we used it to drive a huge, precariously balanced gig into the nation's eye.

There was shock and surprise, admiration, and criticism.

For 24 to 48 hours the top dog of those times (the BJP) was all drugged and stunned, and Parliament went into a spin for many days. In subsequent days and months we received in numerous ways the gratitude of a nation whose many children felt that we had gone and empowered them in no small measure. They saw us as speaking truth to the big and powerful.

These truths that were for long public knowledge but hadn't bubbled up ever in grand technicolor splendour to embarrass the Goliaths of the day. Of course, the Goliaths too had their days but, strangely, though the most sinister of motives were ascribed to Operation Westend no one really got up to advance any bogus theory that the operation, if taken to be done in good faith, wasn't in the larger public interest - that compulsory shield that would justify using intrusive technology like hidden cameras and going undercover with elaborate deception and pretence.

While sting operations have gone mainstream since 2001 - some with decent success like the recent Ghoos Mahal episode in Aajtak and the ones that Tehelka has continued to mount for its paper - India TV’s recent "casting couch" series has to be looked upon with consternation.

For me it raises four primary fears. One, a descent into voyeurism of the UK tabloid kind where even the sexual antics of minor royalty is pursued with unfathomable gusto. If public interest starts getting interpreted as the right to know who perhaps, has slept, or is sleeping, or wants to sleep with who it's untenable. Eventually, it would go to the courts and I can't see the lordships taking anything but a dim view on the episode.

Secondly, it gives the Government an excuse to step in and frame some guidelines via a body like the broadcast authority, which they are planning to set up. That would be disastrous. My strong opinion is that the area is best left unregulated relying instead on the wisdom and instincts of the editors of individual media platforms themselves like it is now. But for that to continue to happen editors have to get a good safety net going.

Thirdly, it dilutes the ability of many journalists to pursue serious stories using hidden camera gear where public interest is unquestionable for it colours even serious pursuants of the art with a strong dose of frivolity.

Fourth, and for me perhaps most alarming, it would necessarily lead to a dilution of the ambition and thirst of young journalists to get the big story. If, Shakti Kapoor and Aman Verma are going to be way to "glory" (even transient) for a journalist I might as well exit my profession. No use even dumping my dreams with the current set.

And mind you I am the last person to take any high moral ground on anything. I am even open to the idea of a story on sexual exploitation (which lies at the heart of India TV's attempt) of women by the high and mighty but with a subject as loaded as that there has to be a high degree of finesse and accountability and previous knowledge of the subject's criminality in the area. And I am still not sure how you would balance for the fact that in the Indian social milieu it's the guy that generally makes the move and a girl chatting up would throw different connotations and assumptions in the air that you would have to account for.

If there is a dearth of ideas let me suggest some for India TV even at the risk of alerting potential subjects. I think, coming from the chatter that I hear, an undercover investigation into how questions really get asked in Parliament would yield rich dividends. It would be reminiscent of the mid-90s The Sunday Times "Commons-cash-for-questions" sting in the UK.

If it were upto me I would float a dummy company and approach MPs across party lines requesting them to ask questions regarding purported and maybe non-existent business rivals and get it all on tape. Apart from the seriousness of the matter it would even generate a lot of humour. Imagine the comic spectacle of an MP asking something like, "Why was Gorilla International Pvt Ltd black listed by the Railway Ministry in spite of having bid the lowest for Tsu-tsu diesel engines?"

By the time the Railway Ministry went out of whack figuring out the truth from its files you could perhaps get in ten more questions. I was alarmed when somebody told me recently that the going rate could be as low as Rs 5,000 for some MPs for asking questions. Now, I would have real fun with something like that and only a moron would call it not in the public interest.

You could even have a go at how MPs spend their constituency funds. That's a lot of money and a lot of ground to cover and I would be surprised if it didn't yield a lot of lather.

If that's too hard to do or risky, seeing that politicians are involved (there are just a few lovable mad caps around like Tehelka and the Indian Express) how about a story on the non-performing assets in the Indian banking sector running into thousands of crore? A lot of grease money is floating around there.

Or even one on says the grants to different NGOs from bodies like CAPART. If you went around with cameras trying to even locate those NGOs I promise it will be a lot of fun and games.
Of course, if these ideas were considered pedestrian how about wiring up a peon in the Reliance boardroom while the RIL board was meeting to get you a live feed straight from India's premier corporate family (apologies to Mukesh Ambani)? What would really interest me there is the way the so-called independent directors conduct themselves. Are they lazy dogs or are they guarding the public investment?

My LIC policy will mature in many years time and a lot of India Inc money is there in that company and the amount of bonus I will get is going to be determined by how LIC investments fare. Needless to say, the real fun would begin there after the telecast and India TV would learn fast the difference between Mukesh Ambani coming after them and Shakti Kapoor.

I personally prefer worthy opponents. But what else would you expect of a deranged Allahabadi.

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