Cashing in on stings

BY sevanti ninan| IN Media Practice | 11/10/2007
So what should one conclude about the message from NDTV India’s new fictional pulpit?
SEVANTI NINAN asks in her column.

IDIOT BOX

Sting operations can be bad news.  But do they make for interesting fiction? The jury is still out on that one. A quickie movie has just been churned out, the verdict on which is still coming in. Despite the best efforts of Aaj Tak to promote it because proprietor Aroon Purie¿s daughter acts in it,  the Hindustan Times film critic reports that the theatre he was in  ran it for twenty minutes and then returned his money because he was the only person in the hall. Called Its Breaking News, reviews so far have been rather uncharitable.

On Television NDTV India¿s entertainment series on the legal world, Bombay Lawyers,  did an episode on sting operations  and newspaper exposes on October 6. It turned the news channel (which must be the only one in the world to run a regular fiction series) into a  platform for some heavy editorializing. Vivek Raghavan, partner in Roy and Raghavan, tells the court, that "while we live in an age of products, everything cannot be for sale…the truth cannot be for sale." He is arguing in a case where a reporter¿s contract has  not been renewed after she wrote an investigative report which irked one of  the paper¿s big advertisers.  In a parallel case where a fellow lawyer from his firm is defending a film director accused of  expecting sex from would be starlets in his films, she too comes up with heavy lines on the state of media today: stings of the kind done by the channel called INews (or is it Eye News) in this episode amount to despicable journalism she thunders.

There is a thread of ambivalence that often  runs through the treatment of various issues that Bombay Lawyers tackles  and it is particularly pronounced in this episode.  While discussing whether to take up the case, one of the lawyers in the firm says, however bad the accused in this case might be,  INews is a hundred times worse. The makers of Bombay Lawyers have evidently decided that public opinion is tilting against  sting operations in the background of recent developments. The attractive young lawyer who handles the brief  is  occasionally repelled by the conduct of the man she is defending.  He ask more than once,  "If you dislike me, why are you handling my case?"  The man playing the role is miscast as a blade, not a lecher, a red-haired blade at that. Though he does not look the part, the evidence from the witnesses in court points  to a habitual sexual predator.  But viola, the right to privacy triumphs, the judge is convinced, and Roy and Raghavan has a celebration party for successfully defending   a man whose conduct is modeled on real life sting victims, Aman Varma and Shakti Kapoor.

Outside the court room something else is playing out.   The editor boss of the reporter who has done the sting is getting cosy with her over a string of drinks, after disabusing her of having any idealistic notions about why INews does its stings.  This, after he has invited her for dinner to discuss "press ki azaadi."  She plays along, and then walks into the offices of Roy and Raghavan the next day with a tape: you¿ve guessed it, a sting on her boss. Senior lawyer Aparna Roy turns righteous,  we cannot use evidence wrongly gathered she says. They win the case without the additional evidence.     But in a neat twist, Roy uses the tape to arm twist the I News boss into renewing the contract of the report dismissed from the channel¿s  sister publication, Mumbai Savera.  "If you do not renew her contract, I will send this tape to every newspaper office ." "That¿s blackmail," he says indignantly.  "Right, but you call it stings, right?"  Touche.

So what should one conclude about the message from NDTV¿s  new fictional pulpit?  That market journalism is spawning its own vigilante force, which sections of the media are beginning to distance themselves from. Even if it means condoning the casting couch.

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