"And the 'word' lost the struggle with the 'visual'." If one sees the context in which this observation was made by a young Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament Manvendra Singh in a guest editorial in a business daily recently, the impact of sting operations carried out during 2005 will become clear. In an editorial headlined 'When Camera Gets Mightier Than The Pen,' Singh was highlighting the globalisation of India and how this is affecting Indians in every walk of life, including their waning reverence for the written word. Even if the written word is a piece of investigative journalism.
Forty-something Singh goes on to add that while a sting operation aired by two news channels --- Aaj Tak and Star News --- whipped up a national furor and disgust over cash-for-question scandal relating to MPs from some political parties, allegations of 'bribery' and funding of senior Indian politicians by the KGB of the erstwhile USSR in the 1970s and 1980s, as revealed in a book released by a former Russian spy, did not even merit a national debate. "The difference, alas, being that Mitrokhin (the Russian spy) is the written word, while cash was exchanged on camera," Singh bemoans a trend in today's India, which, in fact, is a left handed compliment to news channels' sting operations that have targeted wide ranging personalities from the world of entertainment to bureaucracy to politics.
That's why Indiantelevision.com, when it was drawing potential candidates for its Personality of the Year 2005 awards, honed in on the sting as the most deserving of this recognition. Sting operations or Mr Sting --- no relation to the famous musician --- as it (or he or she depending on who's doing the joking) is being referred to in jokes doing the rounds of the cocktail circuit.
What was termed by many a critic as a mere ratings-grabbing gimmick by news channels, especially by India TV, in a market that is getting more fragmented with the mushrooming of channels, has turned out to be something that isn't a fad or a one-off event. Rather, it's going to be the torch-bearer of new age journalism, as it's being described by many in the TV industry.
"Sting operations as a practice are not only going to stay, but will get more intensive and frequent (in Indian TV news). A sting operation is all about new-age journalism where technology plays a vital role and is a good way to unveil corrupt practices and those who indulge in them," opines Rajat Sharma, chairman of India TV, which started the trend this year with a series of on-air sex exposes involving film and TV personalities on the casting couch and politicians and religious leaders in various stages of undress.
Interestingly, most of these sting operations --- as evident in the latest expose done by Star News and Aaj Tak --- have kept away from the stock market and the financial world, preferring to concentrate on politicians and TV and film people whether it's the 10 MPs caught on camera accepting money for raising issues in Parliament or Shakti Kapoor (film actor) and Aman Verma (TV actor) almost caught with their pants down. There's no denying that people's rate of consumption of such exposes goes up when politicians or people in high public offices are involved. Or, those from the entertainment world who are seen as leading a glamorous life in country where a large section of the population is still below the poverty line, but have spiraling aspirations.
"There's an anti-politician mood in the country where the gladiatorial approach of (TV) journalists fits in well. And, if a sting is done in the public interest (as most TV channels will insist on), it enhances the credibility of a channel," feels chief editor of the recently launched news channel CNN IBN Rajdeep Sardesai, who says that his channel too has carried out a sting recently, but depended entirely on documents instead of hidden cameras and microphones.
But here it gives rise to a question whether such sting operations are carried out with public interest in mind or for reasons relating to commerce and ratings. There will always be differing opinions on this issue. From the point of view of the media, such exposes are done for societal good --- the cash-for-question scandal aired by Aaj Tak, feels Sardesai, was good for its sheer simplicity and impact --- but for the 'victims' it's invasion of privacy where the idea primarily is to shoot the messenger.
No wonder, the recent sting ops involving elected members to Parliament rocked India and the political world, severely jolting those in politics and bureaucracy. Even as politicians now have started coming out in the open for having a broadcast regulatory framework in place to check such stings, the ordinary people are left wondering what next.
Rejecting a parliamentary panel recommendation to expel MPs recently tainted in the cash-for-question scandal for swift and exemplary punishment, a senior BJP Member of Parliament, instead, vehemently argued for regulating news channels. "Those people who spent an earmarked amount of money (to lure MPs), earned several times more after selling the visuals to a news channel," Yashwant Sinha argued in Parliament on 23 December, making it clear that his party's feeling was that more than public interest, commercial gains prompted the sting.
The debate on this will rage on with 'victims' always making an attempt to shoot the messenger, but in days to come it's unlikely that the appetite for sting ops will decrease. Unless, of course, the policy-makers cutting across party lines unite to shackle the TV media in stringent rules and regulations. The possibility of this cannot be ruled out totally.
Though the likes of Sardesai feel that such programmes need not necessarily translate into high ratings --- "There's no evidence to suggest ratings majorly rise after sting ops," he says --- for others apart from connecting with the viewers, stings do boost ratings too. India TV's Sharma believes that ratings of the channel did go up dramatically after they aired sting ops involving TV and film actors and this helped other aspects of the broadcasting business too. Ditto for Star News.
So keep tuned in for more sting operations, which are surely to get more innovative because fazed public personalities are waking up to the wonders of technology and jammers.