Vinod Mehta speaks to Indrajit Hazra about the perils of being too friendly with proprietors and politicians and what is common to a journalist and a virgin. Excerpts:
You're still on the top of your game. Why this book now?
I'm not as old as Khushwant Singh, but it's always been at the back of my mind: Get it out! God knows what will happen. I don't know whether I have more than one book inside me, but I knew that I had one book, this one. Now that I have written this, there's an empty vacuum inside me because I have nothing more to say. Whatever I wanted to say, I have put it into this book. I don't know whether I'll be ever doing a sequel. So if posterity is going to judge me, this is it.
Much of this book is about the dynamics between the editor and the proprietor, the journalist and the businessman. Have things changed over the years?
I think proprietors have become more sophisticated as well as more difficult. I have always maintained that to be a great editor, you need a great proprietor. The Washington Post's editor Benjamin Bradlee had Katherine Graham. Another great paper, The Guardian, is owned by a trust that guarantees freedom to the editor. My problem was the three disasters I had - Indian Post, The Independent and The Pioneer [he was sacked from these three publications] - in terms of my relationship to my proprietor was poignant because almost in each case, we were on the verge of breaking even and we were cut down just as we were about to make it.
But these were extraneous forces. Not editorial.
You see, nobody remembers the extraneous forces. Everybody says that Vinod Mehta is a 'Hit and go' editor. But in these relationships, I learnt many things, one of which was that it's not a good idea to become too friendly with the proprietor. That means you should be committed to his newspaper ventures, not to his other ventures and that he should never feel that he can ask you do anything in spheres not connected with publishing. One of my proprietors wanted me to get him invitations to Rashtrapati Bhavan banquets. I didn't want to tell him that I didn't get them myself. So I said I'll try. I never said no, I always said I'll try. But when Vijaypat Singhania [owner of The Indian Post] sent me a list of people I couldn't write about…
Which included the prime minister…
Yes, starting with the PM, then Dhirubhai Ambani, Sharad Pawar, Murli Deora… I have that letter!
What about journalists being friendly with politicians?
I'm more emphatic about that. I believe our trade is different. They are in the business of embellishment, evasion, spin and finally you can say they are in the business of lies. We are in the business of truth. We may not get it. We may also do some things. But there is a fundamental divide. Politicians will use journalists, journalists can't use politicians. You may use him to the extent of getting a plot of land or something. But that's it. As I write in the book, for a journalist, credibility is like virginity; you can lose it only once.