The debate on new journalism, to which sting operations are a recent addition, runs the risk of being divided along generational lines, between the fuddy-duddies and the harbingers of a new dawn. It is a mistake to see transitions in stark colours. True, journalism no longer is what it was and shall not remain the way it is. My own hunch is that sheer public pressure will restore to it that which may have been discarded in a hurry and which may be the “essentially useful”. Credibility is only one such value.
Look at the American (and British) media in the context of the Iraq war. It is a universal truth that when war breaks out, the first casualty is the truth. Not surprising, therefore, that the American media, embedded or not, lined up behind what it perceived as the national purpose. As would happen in a free press, soon stories appeared about official deception, brazen management of the media, a whole system of planting stories and concealment of atrocities. Not surprisingly, President Bush’s ratings plummeted alongside that of the media most enthusiastic about his enterprise. The self-correcting mechanism in the media, which in a democracy is public opinion, is at work. This will happen in India too. The public over a period of time will endorse, discard or refine the journalism of soundbites and sting operations.
Once, as a cub reporter, I drove around Rajasthan for The Statesman to cover one of the severest famines in history. Returning to Jaipur, I found the front pages of all my rivals splashed with photographs of a tributary of the Rajasthan Canal, with headlines which played down the severity of the famine because canal waters would bring irrigation to the parched land. “What have you done?” I shouted at Rajendra Shankar Bhatt, state government spokesman, “The countryside is groaning under famine and you’ve planted photographs of canal waters.” With almost mocking indulgence, he said: “Relax, Naqvi, that which has been published is the truth.”
I thought I was at my furious best that afternoon as I hammered out my story, replete with Bhatt’s Goebbels-like approach. Instead of being praised, I was called back to New Delhi and rapped on the knuckles by the editor for being “intemperate”, and quite unworthy of being the paper’s representative. Judge for yourself. Was the editor being excessively fastidious? The result of his stern view was that Bhatt remained a powerful officer for decades. Had I received editorial support, he would have lost his job, such was the credibility of The Statesman those days.
That, paradoxically, was the problem. How could a newspaper, which valued its credibility above all else, place its reputation on the line on the basis of an “incomplete” report filed by a cub reporter? “Incomplete” report? Of course. The story was based on visual descriptions of famine and the photographs in the other papers were designed to divert attention from the people’s misery. I should have interviewed Bhatt, spoken to the Rajasthan Canal authority, the chief secretary, MLAs on the treasury benches from affected districts who were disgusted with official apathy, even sought an interview with the chief minister and Opposition leaders.
That was the sort of labour required for a credible investigative story. It was that sort of rigour which imparted to media organisations the credibility which is rare these days. There is no alternative to rigorous training. But how do you have trained hands for a media industry burgeoning at break-neck speed, requiring thousands of reporters and editors each month?
There is no solution except to brace yourself for an extended period of a professionally imperfect media. It is like flying through turbulent weather. Eventually you will reach your destination. After all, in the midst of professionally indifferent media, there are newspapers and TV networks which are professionally competitive. These will serve as models, even as newer and better media institutions begin to churn out trained hands. Sting operations are a part of the hectic pace at which the media is evolving, carrying with every sting as much promise as risk.
I am afraid sting operators will have to draw up some such catalogue of their targets. Technology cannot be thwarted but it also has its limits. The button-camera will take pictures of Bangaru Laxman or cash-for-question MPs. What next? It is now in the hands of the marketing departments of competitive button-cameras to place the implement in the hands of sting operators from district to district, panchayat to panchayat — wherever the common man comes into contact with the corrupt.
In the end, public opinion will determine the durability of sting operations. We are either passing through a phase or entering one where the sting operator will become a permanent feature of the media scene