Peepshow TV journalism - How far is too far?

Sex for survival, sex for jobs, sex for promotions (in the Indian Air Force the phrase is sex-for-stripes), sex for sex sake. And now, following the India TV "sexposés", enter sex for TRPs into the sex lexicon?

The media has been abuzz with India TV's 'sting operation' that first exposed has-been Bollywood baddie Shakti Kapoor and later stung TV superstar Aman Verma. Both these worthies were caught on camera asking for sexual favours from the same woman - an undercover journalist posing as an aspiring actress.

And this is just the beginning. There are many more "stings" still to unfold in this tale. As the man behind India TV Rajat Sharma says, "Just wait and watch for more stings to come."

The channel management claims that it is on a mission, trying to expose what "everyone knows about but no one openly talks about" --- the casting couch syndrome in the entertainment industry. But then many feel the way in which the channel has been going ahead with the operation is unpardonable and actually makes it the real villain of the story. Some have called it a "cheap ploy to garner eyeballs in a rather cluttered market", while others maintain it's an ugly turn the channels wars are now taking.

Let's just do a brief recount of the entire sting. The girl makes persistent phone calls to the actor and addresses him flirtatiously by his first name and later invites him late at night to her hotel room. According to Shakti Kapoor she served him drinks and took him through a systematically planned seduction but the channel maintains that it was really Kapoor who asked for drinks and tried to get close to her.

Here perhaps we will never get to know what the truth is; as the real footage rests with the channel; and obviously a lot of it would have been edited. But the journalist got really lucky and an inebriated Kapoor threw around names of bigwigs in the industry like Subhash Ghai and Yash Chopra as examples of those who also use the 'casting couch' to have their way with women.

In its second sexposé on Aman Varma, the same ploy has been used.

The reactions to the sexposés have been at two extreme ends of the spectrum. There are those who believe exposing the casting couch will definitely work in favour of working women as people indulging in it will probably think twice. Critics however, see it as plain voyeurism and a clear and unambiguous violation of the right to privacy. Claims of investigative journalism notwithstanding, the crux of the matter is the channel's strategy to garner eyeballs and the manner in which the salacious footage was telecast was all about getting TRPs.

Says media commentator, Kaveree Bamzai, "The channel seems to be looking to brand itself as India's first tabloid channel." But then, as some media planners point out, sleaze and sex do not necessarily equal eyeballs.

Though we will have to wait a while to see whether the series of stings will actually drive up the channel's ratings in the medium to long term, there is no denying the 'market buzz' that the channel has generated. The channel seems to have found its place under the spotlight.

But then does the end justify the means? Media observers feel sting operations like the one Tehelka conducted are justified since that was all about exposing corruption at high levels. Perfectly justified in an area where the government machinery has failed and it's all for the greater public good.

Putting things in perspective, managing director, BAG Films Anuradha Prasad says, "We are living in times when the line seems to be becoming very thin between sensationalism and investigation. So, it is now each to its own as far as accountability and editorial judgment goes."

But definitely the competition seems to be hotting up. TV news is an evolving medium and has definitely moved away from being just about straight news. We are living in the times of Page 3 journalism, where sizzle sells and 'breaking news' at any cost seems to be the mantra to get an edge over the competition. Sting operations of different sorts seem to be on the agenda of many news channels.

Though refusing to comment directly on India TV's operation Star News Editor, Uday Shankar says, "It's definitely not ethical on my part to judge what the other channel has done. We have conducted various operations on some of our programmes like Red Alert. It was about the flesh trade that operates in the glamour world. But in this case we had covered the faces of the people involved. So, it is not all about putting a single person on the hot seat who can face social ostracism and isolation. Because that's the worst kind of punishment."

So what does Tarun Tejpal, the man behind the sting of all stings, the Tehelka exposé have to say about all this? "First off, I would like to clarify that I am in no way associated with them (India TV's sting). Though I have not seen the recent Aman Verma expose all I can say is we would never indulge in operations that take on individuals. And in a situation like this, the way it has been portrayed, it is very difficult to establish who's right and who's wrong. Clearly for us sting operations are all about significant issues and things which affect public life and we would never do things like these."

Prurient interest, salacious gossip. Daily bread and butter stuff that Britain's celebrated tabloids thrive on. India TV looks to be positioning itself as the country's first purely tabloid news television channel. And getting a hook in the already cluttered mindspace of the TV viewer. In the final analysis, that's what this all sound and little of worthwhile substance sting operation is all about. Or so we believe.

In this context, Irving Wallace's novel, The Almighty immediately comes to mind. The head of a newspaper, The New York Record, is driven by a single obsession: toppling the leader, The New York Times. All's fair in his book and he stoops at nothing to achieve his ambition. Even hiring terrorists and resorting to espionage to create news.

And being the first to always publish it in his newspapers, twisting destiny to suit his own needs and desires. His megalomania leads him to believe that he is God, The Almighty - that he can change his fate. But he realizes too late, he cannot, and finally comes to an end in a chopper crash.

Thankfully, such a scenario still remains in the realm of fiction. But who knows, with competition being what it is, where all this will lead. Just how far is too far?

Is there a lesson in this for all those in the TV news business? Probably. And are those who are living by the sting, aware that they too could be stung if someone else turns the camera on them?

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