When Delhi High Court on Friday sought to draw a line for the electronic media in the Uma Khurana 'expose' case, it only gave vent to seething frustration in the minds of the 'exposed' -- that TV channels want to fictionalise to perk up their TRP ratings.
Knowing the pitfalls, some of the leading channels, however, have decided to jointly work out a code of ethics to prevent recurrence of such cases.
In the growing list of such stings, while the truth is a casualty, there does remain a thin line between an unverified expose and 'decent investigative journalism.' This is largely because of the absence of any regulation, whether in-house or from the government.
The court's observations came in the wake of a number of 'exposes' and 'exclusives' where channels have shown exaggerated accounts of a non-existent reality. The latest was portrayal of two 'child labourers' in Bihar.
However, Barkha Dutt, Managing Editor, NDTV, insists the government should not regulate the media.
"Media houses should have their own regulations, checks and balances," she told PTI.
Dutt and Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief, CNN-IBN, prefer sting as a last resort to serve public interest.
"There should not be any entrapment. All the conventional sources should be first exhausted. A sting operation should not become the default mode of journalism," Dutt says.
Advocating for a strict code of conduct within media organisations, Sardesai said, "The process has already begun for the self-regulation (on the part of media)."
Tarun Tejpal, CEO and Editor-in-Chief, Tehelka, admits to 'rampant commercialisation' of sting operations.
"The solution (of how to stop fake stings) has to come from media, which must itself look for some self-regulation keeping in mind the good of society," he says.
Since the self-regulating mechanism is yet to be evolved, and as the government considers action on the high court order, the significance of exposing 'misdeeds' of the people in authority remains as strong.
Manikrao Gavit, Minister of State for Home, who himself became a victim of a sting wrongly showing him finalising a land deal with UP land mafia, supports legislation.
"I support the Broadcast Bill whose provisions are currently being discussed with the media industry," he said.
Anirudh Behl of the Cobra Post was of the view that, if it (sting operation) functions within rule books, then undercover reporting offers a tremendous service to society.
"We get into an expose only when there is strong evidence with us."
Last week two children were shown ploughing the field oxen-like on the family farm of Union Rural development Minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh. The 'story' fell within days when it was reported that the children were paid Rs 20 each to pose for the camera.
In Delhi school teacher Uma Khurana's case, the sting showed Khurana running a sex racket forcing school girls into prostitution. The sting was later found to be a managed show.
The court, while cautioning the media, said: "Such incidents should not happen and false and fabricated sting operation, directly influencing upon a person's right to privacy, should not recur because of desire to earn more and to have higher TRP rating."
The court added, "We feel that entrapment of any person should not be resorted to and should not be permitted."
Delhi High Court's direction that the Information and Broadcasting Ministry consider setting up a committee from which TV channels get mandatory approval can run into controversy as it may be construed as direct interference from government in the editorial management of private news channels.
And it is the evidence part of an expose which the Delhi High Court is concerned about. It wants a Ministry-appointed three-member committee to vet a sting operation before a news channel airs it. But then, would the TV channels agree to this mechanism, after all there is the question of freedom of speech and expression? And what if there is an intentional resistance to 'clear' an expose?