Vinod Mehta (1942-2015). Editor of Editors

09 Mar,2015


By Ranjona Banerji


To the reader, Vinod Mehta was a witty, self-deprecating columnist while to the TV news watcher, the man who appeared on TV with a drink in his hand and a joke to share. But to the journalist he was an editor of editors. An editor who stood by his staff, who stuck his neck out for a good story and who did not bend to his own advantage as political winds shifted. If he did not win everyone’s love, he certainly gained almost everyone’s admiration.


It is almost impossible to explain just how Mehta had that editor’s touch. It is not that he did not make mistakes and paid dearly for it when it came to both the Indian Post and The Independent. But more than that, Mehta had that ineffable instinct for the fresh and the refreshing. He did away with the pompous gloom associated with an editor’s office and instead imbued his publications with that terrible cliché: both style and substance.


This was evident in every publication he touched, from Debonair to Sunday Observer to Indian Post to Independent to Pioneer to Outlook. He also had those other qualities which sets a great editor apart from a self-important bore: he was irreverent and able to laugh at himself. This saw him in good stead through his career in journalism and possibly his life.


His last great story for which Indian journalism should be permanently grateful is the publishing of the transcripts of the Radia tapes. Between his Outlook and Open magazine, then edited by one of his protégés Manu Joseph, the world discovered the invidious links of power and payment between corporates, politicians and senior journalists. Eventually, the story cost him his job at Outlook, largely thanks to the ire of Ratan Tata, and he was removed from the newsroom which he ruled for 17 years to a more ceremonial post. It seems fitting in a way for an editor who was one of the last to be willing to risk management wrath for a good story.


His last two books, Lucknow Boy and Editor Unplugged, told his story in his own words and no one can do it better. He has written about his successes and his failures, both professional and personal. His style is intact in both although Editor Unplugged is somehow darker. Both should be required reading for all journalists, old and young.


The media is full of stories of personal tributes for Mehta. Many have wished that they could have worked with him and that is, undoubtedly, the best tribute any editor could wish for. It is ironic that in this age of journalists taking selfies with politicians and behaving like fangirls and fanboys, Mehta who did neither, managed to attract India’s top politicians to his funeral. Perhaps there is a lesson there for young journalists – you can earn respect even of people you disagreed with if you have professional integrity. Given the state of Indian journalism today, yes, I am laughing as I write these words.


Mehta has been lambasted for being unabashedly secular and was often accused of being a Congress stooge. He discusses this in his books as well. The letters page in Outlook was full of such accusations and Mehta was courageous enough to carry all the opinions against him while sticking to his own stand.


Of the several tributes, one of the most ungracious comes from veteran columnist Swapan Dasgupta on Twitter who appears to have dismissed Mehta as a gossip with facile political understanding. This might seem a bit rich coming from someone who propagates through his columns the point of view of the BJP but that is Dasgupta’s prerogative and he has his right to his own opinion. It is a cheap fallacy that once a person is dead he or she must be universally praised. However, as every journalist worth his or her salt knows, gossip is the cornerstone of our existence.


I never worked with Mehta and I do not build my life around regret. But I did meet him a few times, the last when he was given the Lifetime Achievement Award for 2012 by the Mumbai Press Club. Having a drink after the event, he looked around him and asked me, “Are these people really journalists?”


It was a good question then and remains one now. How many of us really are any more?


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One response to “Vinod Mehta (1942-2015). Editor of Editors”

  1. ashok759 says:

    Are these people really journalists ? That one incisive remark shows that behind Vinod Mehta’s affable persona, there was a sharp, critical, appraising mind. He knew the score, for sure, even if he wanted none of the grubbiness and sleaze for himself.

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