Paid media and sting operations

It was November 2007, just a month before the December 2007 assembly elections to Gujarat assembly. Contrary to “secular” media’s expectations and to their utter shock, Narendra Modi was going about the election campaign in a truly secular style. His government had efficiently delivered inclusive development on infrastructure, education, electricity, Sardar Sarovar dam, roads in remote tribal areas, and post-Bhuj earthquake relief work. Riot victims were being rehabilitated, and law was freed to take its own course without fear or favor. Narendra Modi made Gujarati Asmita and development his pole poll plank.
Tehelka magazine at that time was already infamous as a reliable parrot of Congress party. It had insinuated NDA’s Defence Minister George Fernandez, but after he came out in the clear of all charges, it failed to express even a hint of remorse. It now decided to launch another “bombshell” sting operation against a new target: Gujarat CM. Its reporters carried hidden cameras on the streets of Gujarat to record “clinching evidence of the involvement of CM in riots.”
Not surprisingly, everyone from national media to foreign media to Congress president in her subsequent “Maut ka Saudagar” remark lapped up Tehelka’s sting without asking basic questions about its authenticity. Why? Because such questions were an inconvenient detail, the answers to which could unravel a well-planned strategy of “secularists” to distract the Gujarati electorate from the issues of development that CM spoke of. Congress party knew very well their traditional vote-catchment areas: divide and rule, fear, insecurity, and victimhood politics.
The Supreme Court-monitored SIT submitted a closure report on Gujarat riots investigation in 2012. The report goes threadbare into nailing Tehelka’s allegations, and exposes the sting operation as fake and motivated.

Noted National Security analyst and Firstpost journalist Praveen Swami writes today on the dangers to journalism profession posed by such sting operations which can only be termed “yellow journalism.”

“Tehelka’s famous tapes on the Gujarat riots are a case in point: the testimonies it relied on had multiple errors of fact which passed unnoticed because the horrors they described made many sensible people suspend their analytic judgment. Babu ‘Bajrangi’ Patel, now potentially facing the death sentence for his role in the carnage, was alleged to have bragged that he’d slit the stomach of a pregnant mother and speared out the foetus. In fact, the transcripts of his testimony show, he actually only said he’d been accused of this in an FIR. It’s since been established by Supreme Court-monitored investigators that the incident itself was a fabrication (

There are several such instances in the Tehelka tapes. For example Madan Chawal claimed he was present when Congress politician Ehsan Jaffrey’s hands and legs were chopped off. The post-mortem, even then publicly available, didn’t bear out this claim.

None of this diminishes the horror of the killings—but it does cast reasonable doubt about the credibility of the testimony.

The fact Tehelka’s stories were so deeply compelling allowed them to walk past the problems involved in corroborating the testimony. It isn’t the job of reportage to be compelling, though. The media’s task is a relatively modest one: to tell the truth, as best it can. Telling the truth, of course, most often involves analysis and opinion—but not propaganda through words or images. In essence, journalism is about truth-telling, not making a point.”

He concludes with this important message to sensation-loving journalists:

“For years now, its been evident spectacle—as opposed to reason—that has had a growing influence on our public life. Part of the reason for this, that the media is getting ever-worse at its primary function, providing credible information. The media censors out parts of the truth out of concern it might inflame. It censors out other parts of the truth because it thinks they’re uninteresting to its audience. It censors out still other parts of the news because it has a diminishing pool of domain expertise.

We even seem unable to get the most basic facts right. “I would like to be sure when I open the morning newspaper”, Amartya Sen wrote, “that what I am reading—that A said B—is actually accurate. It is hard to have that assurance.””

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