Sting in the tale
A Kerala minister’s exit after a ‘sting’ operation spurs a debate on privacy vs public interest
The matter is now under a judicial inquiry, but the resignation recently of a minister in the Kerala government turns the spotlight once again on the tricky journalistic terrain of the sting operation. A new Malayalam television channel, Mangalam TV, had debuted on March 26 with a splash. It broadcast an audio recording allegedly of the then Transport Minister of Kerala, A.K. Saseendran, purportedly seeking sexual favours from a woman who had come to him for assistance. Her end of the conversation was not put out, and the channel reported that it had got the tape directly from the woman. Mr. Saseendran put up a defence imputing that all was not what it appeared on the broadcast — but in the ensuing storm, resigned. Four days later, on March 30, the CEO of the channel went on air to render an apology, presumably for misrepresenting matters, though we must await the inquiry report to get a final picture of what transpired. The CEO, significantly, admitted that a woman journalist with the channel had conducted the sting, suggesting this was in reality a kind of honey trap. As things stand, the CEO and eight other Mangalam employees have been booked under sections of the Information Technology Act and the Indian Penal Code. Mr. Saseendran, who had been the lone minister from the Nationalist Congress Party in the Left Democratic Front government in Kerala, must wait out the inquiry process before making a bid to regain his portfolio.
The ethics of sting operations is among the most fiercely debated issues in journalism. And while different jurisdictions and media groups around the world have varying guidelines on the subject, some things are generally agreed upon. Any such operation that uses false pretences, with its necessary violation of the interviewee’s trust and privacy, must serve a larger public interest that far outweighs such violation. It also must be used as a last resort, when there is no other means of acquiring the information sought, and must be the outcome of considerable editorial deliberation. Stings were never intended to entrap or induce people into committing wrongdoing or, as seems likely in this case, embarrassing themselves badly. Stings are an ethical minefield and it is imperative that publications and broadcasters explain the vital public interest for conducting them. Journalists count on the readers’ — indeed the public’s — goodwill to evade the establishment’s potentially vindictive response to an exposé. A sting cannot be an excuse to grab eyeballs with prurient (and essentially private) content, or a shortcut to make a point merely by shocking the reader or viewer. Doing so risks eroding that goodwill and leaving journalists facing harsh charges, often deservedly so.