I’m going to talk about sting operations today and will begin with an assurance: I will not subject you to that poor pun “Stung by Sting” in the entire article! Let newspapers copyright that phrase and let me tell you why I’m missing sting operations.
News channels hunt and hide in a pack. When they are on to something, they are on to it like there’s no tomorrow, and when they run from something, they run like their tails are on fire. Sting operations are a case in point.
In 2005, when Aaj Tak and Star News nuked Parliament with the cash-for-query scams, 20 MPs went out of work, like then and there, instantly. In just two days TV proved what print was insinuating for decades. That heady success drove the channels crazy. The hidden camera became their new weapon and the sting proliferated faster than, say, breaking news! Their vile side exposed like never before, politicians were itching to legislate a ban, but did not dare to because TV had the power of public opinion on its side.
But the Establishment need not have despaired. In trying to outdo each other, TV channels soon embarked on a mission to kill the golden goose. Overused and abused, it did not take long for TV’s most potent weapon to quickly turn into a dud with the infamous Uma Khurana case of 2007.
Sting came and went, but in its coming and going, it left a lasting impact on TV news. It turned out that sting was not just TV’s biggest weapon, but its only weapon. The average TV reporter couldn’t swat a fly without the hidden camera. Worse, sting got the viewer addicted to the high drama of the public flogging of big fish (and even small fish or just about any fish by the time of its premature death). It introduced TV to its seamier side: drama or dramatised news. Investigations and hard-nosed news-gathering died with the sting and drama became a newsroom addiction.
Meet Kunji Lal Dalmiya.
Simultaneously with the sting, another phenomenon was also taking root: unbridled drama, drama that had no basis in reality or had just a thin thread of fact. In October 2005, Kunji Lal, a small-time priest in an unknown MP village, announced he would die at 4 pm on an appointed date. Of course, he was smart enough to send word to the news channels. And, of course, the channels turned up in strength by 10 am and waited for him to die, all the while doing their own versions of the death dance. Being camera-shy, Yama himself skipped the show. Mythology has it that once the Lord of Death sets out on business, he doesn’t return without a kill. So, while he spared Kunji Lal, he signed the death warrant for news and the news reporter.
Not one editor was as much as mildly rebuked for foisting such a patently bogus story on the nation. On the contrary, editors and proprietors inadvertently discovered a great new, inexpensive (if cheap) way of feeding the beast: live news events. Here, all you had to do was send an OB van to spot and transform every bit of piffle into a grand event, occupying hours of national TV time.
You got one story for the price of 20 and, what’s more, it came with a TRP-guarantee.
I can’t recall Kunji Lal’s TV predecessors (there must have been some), but he sure had some noteworthy successors on news’ tragic trip to irrelevance. The saga of Prince, the boy rescued from a tube well after 58 hours of live TV, hastened this slide. A story of genuine news interest, it was further proof of the power of the “news event”. Now you needed anything to create an “event”, whether or not there was “news” in it.
After that, it was a free fall and a free-for-all. If you had an Aish-Abhi wedding, good; if you didn’t, there was always a Professor Matuk Nath with his student-love. Or a dowry-harassed woman who decided to walk to the police station in her underwear, of course, after ensuring a TV camera was handy to record her seminal march to freedom.
Disingenuous, dishonest and downright illegitimate “dramas” began to flood the airwaves under the garb of public demand.
As the TRPs rose, the news reporter wilted. He soon assumed the duties of a watchman out at the gates of these great news events. Squeezed out of air time, he had just two options: Look for crumbs to create them into “news events” or be condemned to the sidelines. As it is, TV’s demands on a reporter’s time are killing, now he had the additional burden of having to fight irrelevance. Some gave in and joined the new fun game, but many just gave up. As a result their sources dried up, their tools are rusting. When a big event occurs needing them to hunt for stories, they are unprepared, capable of operating only as byte-collectors.
Reporters are the eyes and ears of any news organisation. They see what is hidden and hear things that are not supposed to be heard. Without them, content creation is fiction generation. When the eyes and ears are impaired, the motor-mouths take over and content is just empty words and high decibel levels. Scream, screech and hyperventilate.
Once there was a premium on good reporters in TV. Now there is a supari on them.
Their vision impaired by the TRP cataract, broadcasters lost the capacity to appreciate the difference between what the public saw and what the public valued. They failed to see that if TRPs were a vote on the quality of their content, news channels’ public goodwill should have risen with the TRPs. But they achieved the opposite. They missed the signals when the goodwill quickly turned into disgust and popular anger. At this point, news television’s stock is at its lowest ebb.
With the death of the Sting, TV lost its “awe” factor. With the complete putrefaction of content, it frittered away all the public goodwill.
This is a situation the politician loves and exploits to keep the broadcasters on tenterhooks all the time. You never know when an I&B minister will actually deliver on the threats to take over as the Editor-in-Chief of the nation! The last one, Anand Sharma, came pretty to close to it. That is why editors and owners have become tentative; answering the ministry’s every phone call on the first ring like overzealous telephone operators. They troop in to meetings at Shastri Bhawan (I did my share too) and troop out with “advisories”.
Out of fear of retribution and worse, they slammed the door on the sting.
Sting was not bad. The way it was used was horrible. Sting needed the editors to rein in over-enthusiastic reporters and stringers. The editors were not equal to the task and threw the baby out with the bathwater. That has only taken the pressure off the Establishment and emboldened the politician even more.
Now that even the Supreme Court has praised NDTV for its BMW sting, it is perhaps time to bring it back. But only if the editors can keep an iron-grip on it, use it very sparingly and resist the temptation to sell franchises to dubious sting-shops, stringers and interns (as in the Uma Khurana case).
(Venkat, as the author is called, thinks sting is but a partial solution. Revival of reporting is the more pressing reform. But that needs both money and a change of mindset. In a slowdown, money is hard to come by and mindsets are easy to maintain.)