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Do Ethics Matter in Modern Journalism?

Lt. Col. Rajan Suresh (Retd)
(Lecturer, Department of Journalism, University of Kerala, Trivandrum, Kerala, India) has been the most frequently discussed media entity in India for the past three weeks. Every day the media, politicians and bureaucrats have managed to place it on the public agenda one way or the other. But there seems to be no benefit in store for the billion plus Indian population. Judging by similar precedents, ordinary people have no tangibles to hope for.

Tehelka did a very good job of duping some of the small fry in the arms business, and a few greedy civilian and army officers associated with arms purchases. They also managed to dupe important political functionaries such as Jaya Jaitley and R. K. Jain of the Samata Party and Bangaru Lakshman of the BJP. Tehelka established that many of their 'victims' took money, thereby going one step farther than Matt Drudge, the maverick American Journalist who set the trend of Web-journalism based mostly on sensational rumours.  Tehelka obviously had their sights set on becoming 'top-dog' among the watchdogs of Indian polity. The reporter enjoyed celebrity status for a couple of days, and Zee TV, who had a stake in the sting, put the story out in all the channels they own, and most certainly raked in plenty of money. Tehelka's stated purpose- `to expose corruption', has bolstered their image as a smart team of modern day "investigative" journalists. Although debates have ensued about the rights and wrongs in legal terms, the case has raised serious questions about journalistic ethics and responsibility.

The West; particularly the United States and Britain, occasionally get to taste this genre of journalism. Private lives of `public figures' and private lives of private figures are often exposed by journalists looking for sensational stories. President Clinton and Princess Diana were the most prominent targets in recent times. Journalists can now become super peeping-toms with the help of hidden cameras and high-tech surveillance gadgets. And to absolve themselves of criminal intent, the sordid details of many such "investigations" are thrust on unsuspecting people, claiming that a public interest is being served.

Western journalists also cheated and ruthlessly exploited ordinary people by impersonating social workers, counsellors or health-care personnel, to gather personal details that often led to painful consequences. A few classic examples can be found in Fineline, an American newsletter on Journalistic ethics. In a few cases, reporters managed to dupe the US Government, for getting first-hand information from protected sources. Robert Kapler, a small-time reporter pretending to be a security guard, breached the security set-up of a nuclear plant on Three Mile Island to prove that their security was weak. Jonathan Franklin, a freelance reporter signed up as a mortician at the Dover US Air Force Base to get accurate numbers of American soldiers who died in the Gulf War. Whether such reporting has brought about any change in the daily lives of American citizens, or whether it has done the public any good, are debatable.

Tehelka used a wily combination of impersonation, hidden cameras and bribery (all these being culpable offences under Indian Law) to get their tape recordings. The Government of India contends that if public interest was a prime concern, the tapes should not have gone public in such an explosive fashion. But on the other hand, it can be argued quite logically that if the tapes had not been revealed so spectacularly, they would have lost much of their impact. No doubt the largest party in the ruling alliance has been shaken, and some of their political allies unnerved. The Defence Minister has resigned, and higher echelons of the armed forces have been tainted to some extent. India's opposition parties, led by the Congress (I) lost no time in calling for all sorts of "remedies". Tehelka has provided some political gains for the Congress (I). This leads us to the crux of the matter. What was the real purpose of this expose- Public interest or Tehelka's fame and fortune?

Middlemen are undesirable elements in any kind of deal; but the reality is that deals don't go through without middlemen. Corruption is nothing new to the political and administrative set-up in independent India, and some members of the Armed Forces have committed crimes that are morally more serious; such as espionage for alien powers. The Samba spy scandal of the 70s and the later Coomer Narain- Larkins cases involved gratifications of far lesser magnitude for compromising national interests. But after nearly three decades, the incarcerated `spies' stand absolved of the crime, and we hear nothing about the Larkins. Wouldn't it be logical to assume that public attention would soon shift from the Tehelka expose? So the net effect would be to Tehelka's sole advantage, unless Tarun Tejpal and his team persevere, forcing the judiciary or Parliament to set wrongs right. Will they keep at it, or withdraw from the scene saying that their job is over?

Tehelka has broken the story with damning footage on video tape, albeit a little out of focus and frequently out of perspective. The soundtracks and subtitles took on the task of convincing viewers about deals being struck and money changing hands. Unfortunately the odds do not favour Tehelka, simply because modern technology offers all and sundry the wherewithal to digitally manipulate moving images and sound through easy-to-use software packages. It would be a fairly simple task to `smart-edit' video footage, add doctored sound tracks and put all sorts of filters to blur the final product so that it appears authentic. This is not an allegation that Tehelka has done so, but it would take a lot more proof before knowledgeable people are convinced of the video's genuineness. Spielberg's Jurassic Park has made us all skeptical about such `reality'.

Perhaps the best thing the Tehelka tapes did was to highlight human greed. They brought out a story that actually sent ripples through the Government, and made people sit up and take notice. They managed to assign values to individual gullibility. It is now established that the ruling party's titular head can be bought for a hundred thousand rupees and a Major General in the Army for a fifth of that. There is no need to discuss the pros and cons of the matter or to probe whether the money went to party coffers or individuals' pockets. And there is no justification in saying that "money was taken because it was offered". Public figures have misbehaved, and Tehelka's reporters have exposed them., on their part, have taken the law into their hands, and played a con game on unsuspecting (though mostly corrupt) persons. It does not constitute normal journalistic behaviour by any standards. A question of whether this investigative exercise has caused harm to the public is also being discussed, because speculations are rife that Indian soldiers as a whole are demoralized and feel `let down' by the alleged compromises in arming and equipping them. If this situation is for real, then the consequences are not so much in the `public interest', and there may be reason for the Government to brand Tejpal, Bahl and Mathew as mercenaries and traitors. It is catch 22 for the trio. But since we have Dawood Ibrahim, Ottavio Quattrocchi, Harshad Mehta and the more down-to-earth Veerappan calling the shots, it seems anyone can get away with anything in India. ought to survive, and continue entertaining the Indian public in true Drudge fashion.

The ethical issues in this case remain anchored on two aspects. One being the motivation for to take up the issue of bribes and commissions in defence deals at this point of time, when far bigger cases such as  Bofors , HDW and Tangushka are still unresolved. It would do well for Tejpal to explain whether it was journalistic vigilantism or self-interest that encouraged Tehelka reporters to give away large amounts of cash and take such risks. The other pertains to the method adopted- in befriending touts, feeding, wining and bribing them, and on false pretexts, recording their tall claims with hidden cameras, and finally offering these recordings as news to the public. There is a need to supplement the sensational footage with more real proof and explanation; particularly to ensure that the `public' are not fed half-truths and speculations.  © Lt. Col. R. Suresh 

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