ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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A Sting in the Tale

The increase in the number of sting operations conducted by the media today, perhaps, reflects a growing culture of surveillance where the governed, who were the ones surveilled, now become surveillers, and the governors are now in the position of being surveilled. In fact, we can protect democracy by placing those tasked with keeping it going under surveillance.  

Has the Indian media turned scorpion king? With potent stings? (No, I am not trying out rhyming poetry.) I refer to the now-regular sting operations that “expose” politicians, bureaucrats and media barons themselves so much so that it has given rise to a whole new surveillance culture. Public trust in institutions and authorities increasingly hinges on a making-visible, or what is called “transparency”, which in turns necessitates sting operations. This making-visible calls upon us, the general mass of governed, to participate in it, where this participation is seen to be a component of the democratic process.

Sting operations set out to unravel the process of power by pretending to be a part of this process–by posing as a supplicant, applicant, favour-seeker or potential bribe-giver. These operations hinge on one basic assumption: governance and power must be rendered transparent because and this is the key – transparency equals honesty. It is also assumed that the opacity of a system is a deliberate concealment of its processes, and therefore what is hidden is socially and legally unacceptable. Hence, to expose what is hidden–making-visible–is essential to the operations of power. 

Exposing the Innards

Sting operations seek to dissect and expose the innards of governance.  The governed, it is believed, have a right to know the “interiors” of any power structure, whether it is a school principal’s office or the prime minister’s office (PMO). These “interiors” are supposed to hold the “secret” of the organisation’s power itself. It is assumed that society now (with the Right to Information [RTI] Act) ought to know how the secret works, and whether this secret of an organisation is in keeping with legal and social norms of power.

In other words, the society expects the person behind the public face–say the officer who occupies the position of power–to be as visible as the persona. The individual is the “face” of the authority, so to speak. It is the person behind the public face, taken to be “authentic” or appropriate to the public office that is assumed to lend credibility to the public face. When this person is revealed to be corrupt or degenerate then the public face is affected as well, or exposed as a mere mask of efficiency. This constitutes (i) the judging of the public face by the person behind it, who now stands exposed and (ii) the evaluation of the person in conjunction with the public face of the authority, where the person is assumed to stand between the authority’s “true” self and the world.

Exposure by sting operations is the attempt to connect the person’s interiority with the public face, the subject with the social world of its existence and functions. All of us are subjects formed through social interactions. So when sting operations reveal the corrupt person behind the public face all of the authority’s deeds (embodied in the individual just exposed), social and official interactions are to lose their credibility as well.

Sting operations achieve something else too. It shifts the locus of meaning away from the organisation or authority toward the intermediaries who carry out the operations and toward the public, which is then privy to what the operations have exposed. How the PMO or the judiciary works is now interpreted by the sting operators and the public who may now classify the workings as “illegal” or “immoral”.

The organisation can no longer treat its workings as an internal matter, to be interpreted or reorganised by its own people. The world outside can now claim: “the office which took bribes to issue favours was performing an illegal and immoral act”. Interpretation of the working of the office is now a public act. Public trust depends on many members of the public knowing and seeing how the office works.

Surveilled and the Surveillers

If the interpretation of the “text” of any authority is now “open” it also changes in very significant ways the nature of identities of the surveilled and the surveillers. The governed, who were the ones surveilled, now become surveillers, and the governors are now in the position of being surveilled. The mystique and power of authority–is now in a position where it can be ridiculed, mocked, criticised because its secret workings have been rendered open to interpretation by the general public.

Such operations enable a link to be forged between public accountability and visibility of processes, that is, between transparency and accountability. If to trust somebody demands you know that person, the principle is increasingly applied to public functionaries and organisations. This relies on a notion of public trust that is possible only when the workings of the authority are visible. Transparency therefore makes a direct connection between visibility and trust and sting operations are attempts to test the trust-worthiness of people, organisations and processes whose workings are not publicly visible.

New Cultures of Visibility

Sting operations belong to the new cultures of visibility, which includes whistle-blowing. Like sting operations, the latter generate an “involuntary transparency” (different from the mandatory transparency embodied in processes like the RTI), that is more or less forced on reluctant state agencies and organisations. Involuntary transparency is the consequence of what those in power claim are “leaks”.

Leaks imply porous borders and the transmission of objects or data from the inside to the outside and sometimes vice versa. Sting operations, whistle-blowing and leaks, such as Wikileaks, demonstrate a major shift in notions of the state’s or organisation’s “body” or self where its borders are not impervious but penetrable and vulnerable. Leaks represent the collapse of the idea of the government or any authority as bounded, limited and closed-off. Sting operations as surveillance is about the flow of information from the inside to the outside when the agency refuses to open up its borders. But what does this flow achieve in our society?

We participate in surveillance cultures through sting operations when we place the governors in the camera’s eye. Participation in surveillance of power is a part of our democratic process. The public comes into being because it watches and guards itself and its governing structures. Democracy is about the visibility of power and of openness about this power, so that the citizenry sees and thus gains information about how power operates. If democracy is about the informed choices we (ought to) make about who governs us then those choices require politically relevant information.

Sting operations’ reversal of traditional surveillance in which we as a public participate, is a mechanism of finding and offering information to citizens to make these choices. Public trust demands transparency and information. More importantly democracy now entails–and this is crucial – our willing participation in retaining our/public trust in the government by participating in making-visible the processes of these structures.

To be a responsible citizen today is to endorse the surveillance mechanism, so that we bear witness to process and not just the product of government function. We do not wait to see the effect of legislation, we have to know under what circumstances a piece of legislation was enacted. This of course establishes an odd connection between democracy and surveillance. Perhaps we could say that we can protect democracy by placing those tasked with keeping it, democracy, going under surveillance. 

Sting on.

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