Monday, July 17, 2006

How effective are sting operations?

They're familiar sights on our TV screens these days: The grainy, curiously distorted images, the awkward camera angles, the unclear audio and the anchors promising startling revelations just ahead. They're sting operations; the exposés conducted by journalists in much the same manner as investigative agencies conduct undercover operations. And what's more, they're flourishing: Indeed, 2005 could be called the year of the sting operation.


Major Sting Operations 2005-06

Aaj Tak

Tihar Jail Bani Ghoos Mahal: Officials at Tihar Jail taking bribes

Ghoos Mahal: 82 employees of the Delhi sales tax office taking bribes.

Operation Duryodhan:
11 MPs caught taking bribes to raise questions in Parliament.

Star News

Ayaash IG: Jharkhand IG suspended for sexually exploiting a tribal woman.

Doctor selling infants from a hospital.

Operation Chakravyuh: MP's caught misusing MPLAD funds.

Wife caught on camera beating her husband.

NDTV India

Delhi policeman taking a bribe to hand over the body of a man to his family.

Railway policemen extorting money from passengers.

India TV

Bihar MLAs having sex with call girls.

Holy men sexually exploiting women devotees.

Operation Casting Couch:
Actor Shakti Kapoor propositions journalist posing as actress.

Operation Casting Couch (contd.):
Actor Aman Verma takes journalist posing as an actress to his bedroom.

Sahara Samay

Corruption in Delhi PWD.


What sort of topics do sting operations deal with? Perhaps the most obvious target for these stings has been government corruption. However, stings increasingly deal with other topics as well. For example, India TV aired a series of exposés centering around sleaze including what came to be known as the 'casting couch' story: Bollywood personalities propositioning an undercover journalist posing as an aspiring actress.

CNBC Awaz regularly conducts sting operations on issues concerning consumer rights and private sector malpractices. Stings have also become commonplace on crime shows, though these have no wider impact.

Nevertheless, the most publicized topic for stings remains government corruption. The Tehelka exposé was on corruption in arms deals, Operation Duryodhan on MPs taking bribes to raise questions in Parliament, Operation Chakravyuh exposed misuse of the MPLAD fund, while Aaj Tak's "Ghoos Mahal" was on corruption in Tihar Jail and a sales tax office. The CNN-IBN exposé showed us a UP minister willing to transport narcotics. Kairali TV also recently carried out a sting exposing a state minister. All these sting operations dealt with misuse of power by the authorities- crooked politicians, government officials and policemen.

So what happened after these exposés? At least with Operation Duryodhan, the reaction was swift. All the 11 MPs caught on camera were dismissed from their respective parties. Then, less than two weeks after the scandal broke out, the 11 men were suspended from parliament in an unprecedented and somewhat controversial move. The immediate fallout of Operation Chakravyuh was less dramatic, but still noteworthy: The Lok Sabha speaker ordered an enquiry and told the accused MPs not to attend parliament until their names were cleared. The UP Minister exposed by CNN-IBN resigned from his position, as did the Kerala minister caught in the Kairali TV sting.

These are all remarkable examples of the power of the media. Sting operations have unflinchingly exposed the rot in the system and brought corruption into focus. Though a lot of what they reveal is depressing, none of it is especially surprising. Stings have only confirmed what were once mere suspicions or allegations. They have also put pressure on politicians and bureaucrats to take action against their colleagues caught with their hands in the till.

News channels usually insist that their sting operations are done in public interest. They point out that stings are expensive, unpredictable affairs. Large sums of money go into paying bribes; budgets cannot be fixed in advance and can increase dramatically. And after all that, there is no guarantee of success.

However, sting operations do bring some benefits for news channels. The most obvious is that they have a major, albeit temporary impact on TRPs- they are a great way for a station to get noticed. Perhaps the most important aspect of this is the footage itself- those characteristic visuals showing corrupt netas or government officials making shady deals, and wads of currency changing hands. These visuals not only give substance to the claims of the news channel, they bring in troves of curious viewers. A lot more people end up watching that particular channel simply because the footage is unavailable to competitors.

Whatever the motivations behind sting operations maybe, their immediate effects are often impressive. However, some questions remain over the long-term benefits. One reason for this is that news channels usually fail to follow up on their stings adequately. This may be because of a sense that the story is 'over'. But is it really?

How much did things really change after the 2001 Tehelka exposé? In 2003, a sting exposed Dilip Singh Judeo, a minister while he was apparently taking a bribe. Now, some five years after Tehelka, a series of stings have shown us that corruption is rife as ever in government. Politicians, it seems can still be bribed easily, not just to ask questions in parliament or misuse taxpayers money but to, in the case of the UP minister exposed by CNN-IBN, actually transport narcotics in his own car. What happened in all those intervening years? No matter how many stings are carried out, it still seems like business as usual among the corrupt.

The story is clearly not 'over' once footage from a sting operation is aired. The Aaj Tak sting on a sales tax office may have led to the suspension of some 30 employees but it certainly does not mean an end to graft there. Unfortunately, the way stories of political corruption are treated on TV leaves little scope for follow-ups. Instead, the focus tends to be on specific individuals whom the channel has exposed rather than the systemic problems that allow for corruption in the first place. This may be because of a feeling that audiences are more interested in stories about those individual personalities rather than in analysis of systemic issues.

For example, Aaj Tak's coverage of Operation Duryodhan was dominated by myriad details of the expose- who the MPs were, how much money each of them took and whether political parties would suspend the errant parliamentarians-not the issue of widespread political corruption. After catching on camera a UP minister agreeing to take drugs in his own car, CNN-IBN focused on whether he would be made to resign rather than the larger implications of it's own exposé. Yet with the novelty of sting operations fading and returns diminishing viewers are now more and more likely to question why little seems to be changing.

Indeed news channels seem to be shortchanging themselves by not following up on their own audacious journalism. Armed with little more than tiny cameras and great deal of gumption, a relatively small but committed group of Indian journalists has taken the challenge of exposing corruption head on. And they have been remarkably successful so far. What's needed now is a more sustained commitment from the media to ensuring that the gains they have made are consolidated and the powers that be are held accountable.

Prabhakar Singh
9891358937

Send your write-ups on any media on "mediayug@gmail.com"

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Prabhakar,
I just felt I should thank you for writing such a detailed and convincing article. It sounds really good when someone really praise such efforts. See a reporter has to do a story almost everyday but it can be as easy as a good work PC of police. one of the most easyistthing on the planet. but when someone choose to do something new something risky and with more passion than needed, then I think it should be praised. It is for society afterall. Stings are a tool to deal with corruption.
Regards,
Ravi Sharma

Correction : In Ghoos Mahal all the officers were suspended within a hour and criminal cases were registerd against them by morning. actually I did that sting.

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Hi....
Sir, your article is really convincing and the fact that it entails with it all the detailed information is something which is really benefecial for all of us. Thank You.

abhishek said...

Hello sir,
I am really glad to read such detailed information about sting operation and its aftermath. It has really been beneficial in increasing my knowledge regarding sting operations and its imapct on the society. Thank You.

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