Millennium Post

Remembering the ‘Editor’

I vividly remember meeting Vinod Mehta. The opportunity presented itself when he agreed to give a no-holds-barred interview to the news organisation I used to work for back then. This was during the time when he was Outlook’s editor. Post that meeting, I stayed in touch with him. He was generous with his advice on journalistic matters and his insight into political developments was particularly astute.

A stickler for time, candid and unapologetic about his life and career decisions, each of Mr Mehta’s words still resonate with me till this very day. Couched comfortably in his Editor’s cabin, I remember how he made me wait for reaching early for the interview and chided me for not taking prior permission for the photo-shoot.

Not surprisingly the interview and the photo shoot happened at the appointed time. During the interview, we talked about his career as a copy writer in Bombay (before he entered journalism), the eclectic mix of media organisations he worked in and the controversies attached to each of them. For the earlier days of his career, he confessed, “Initially I had a very vague idea about work. I kept learning, but I was mostly ignorant about things.”

That day I had the privilege of being witness to his legendary candour and also his highly self-critical attitude. Unlike many of his peers in journalism, whose attitudes changed with their designation, Vinod Mehta remained unchanged. “I was a generally opinionated sort of person and when I came to Bombay and started work as a copy writer. I was mediocre at work then, in fact hopeless is a better word,” he told me. We spoke at length about each controversy which surrounded his career. Some of the major controversies included his conversation with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, where the former prime minister confessed to keeping a copy of Debonair copy under his pillow, life-threatening calls from Kabir Bedi over his wife Protima’s nude photo shoot, Sharad Pawar’s links with Dawood, a story that claimed YB Chavan had spied for the US, fights with Shobha De and Amitabh Bachchan and last but not the least Outlook’s story on the Radia Tapes.

 “I knew it (Radia Tapes) was a very big story. It would upset a lot of people. It was not only about journalists, but a sneak peek into how  the Indian democracy works - how at the very highest level you could fix things and how even corporates  (big names like Ratan Tata) were involved in these decisions.” Asked about the backlash he faced from fellow journalists for publishing this story, he humbly pointed out, “Who am I to lecture Barkha Dutt on ethics of journalism? She makes her own decisions, being a successful television journalist. Why should I appear on her television programme and wag my finger at her saying she is wrong? She knew perfectly well what she did and thought it was the right thing to do.... These are my colleagues and contemporaries and who am I to question them?”

We talked about his experiences at each of the places he worked - Debonair, Sunday Observer, The Indian Post, The Independent, The Pioneer and finally Outlook.  Asked which of them had been good to him, he said, “There have been two most memorable experiences that I have had - The Sunday Observer in 1981, when I was really beginning my career and trying to make my name as a legitimate journalist, as opposed to one who printed pictures of naked women. Secondly it has been here at Outlook with Rajan Raheja whom I have been since 1995, which is something of a record for me. However the 29-day stint at Times of India (The Independent) was an unhappy experience and perhaps I played some role in making it so.” When asked what really happened at the Independent he replied,” I left The Indian Post on 26 June 1989, and then started The Independent for the Times of India Group... There was a report that in Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet, there was a minister who was a mole, passing information to the US. American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh published a book on Kissinger in which he mentioned that the mole was Morarji Desai. That time some people from the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) wrote a letter to the PM saying that the mole was not Desai but YB Chavan. We got hold of the letter and printed the story. The government sacked those men in RAW and denied that Chavan was the mole. There was a massive uproar in Bombay.”

Reflecting further on the incident, he said “I made a mistake as it was a half-baked story and I should not have done it. Since I could not prove it, the story caused a lot of trouble for the TOI. I apologised but that was not enough, they wanted my resignation.” On a lighter note we had a detailed discussion about his beloved dog ‘Editor’ who he named so because, “he was disobedient and did not listen to any one. Whatever you told him he would do the opposite. He behaved just like a newspaper editor and I started calling him by that name,” he confessed.

I remember asking (In hindsight it was probably a foolish question to ask) about how much do looks matter in journalism. Simple and sharp came his reply, “I am an outstanding example that they do not matter.” Vinod Mehta was both a role model and mentor for budding journalists and he had a generosity of spirit matched by a few. Mr Mehta you shall be missed dearly, especially by those who knew you well.

(Excerpts are from an interview which originally appeared in Society Magazine)

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