Three years ago, Vinod Mehta and I were in conversation in Kathmandu at the Nepal Literature Festival. We discussed journalism, politics, the rise of Narendra Modi, India’s ‘big brother’ attitude to its smaller neighbours in front of a packed audience, which included Nepal’s leading editors. The question that drew the most interest was what Mehta had often written about. “Can politicians and journalists be friends?” His unequivocal answer was a no.
For a Delhi editor, this was surprising. Was it possible to remain immune to the charms of netas he would meet regularly as a part of his professional duties? And in that lies the answer to the great riddle that is Vinod Mehta’s journalism, for he was a man who became synonymous launching – and walking away from – some of India’s biggest media platforms.
He taught journalists to be self deprecating but not necessarily frivolous, to be intellectually honest and open but not necessarily objective, to be brave but not fool-hardy, and to be enterprising but aware of one’s limitations. And perhaps in each of these values lies the pathway to more ethical journalism, much needed in these times of our shrinking credibility.
Mehta was well-aware that the greatest danger to which Delhi’s top journalists often succumbed was the seduction to power. Proximity to power, he believed, made journalists think they were the ones exercising power and could influence decisions. And this is precisely why he felt it was important to take one’s work seriously, but not oneself seriously.
Not only did he name his dog Editor to puncture precisely these egos, he candidly wrote of his weaknesses. He spoke, often mockingly, of his limited academic background, of being an editor of Debonair, of failed publications, of his difficult relationships with proprietors, of a failed marriage. In his autobiography, Lucknow Boy, he went so far as to confess about his affair with a Swiss lady who got pregnant, refused to have an abortion, and went on to have a baby. Mehta never met his only daughter – and wrote of his failed efforts to trace her in his more recent book, Editor Unplugged.
In an era when editors cannot get over their self-righteousness, when the projection of infallibility is seen as a way to boost TRPs, it speaks a lot of Mehta that he was willing to put all his foibles on the table. In his last interview to Shivam Vij for Scroll.in, he attributed his ‘self mockery’ to Lucknow, the city where he was born. Mehta’s willingness to laugh at one-self, to introspect about where one went wrong, about one’s own personality traits, and acute self-awareness did give him an extra cover against Delhi’s many temptations.
But this did not mean he was objective.
Mehta wore his politics on his sleeve. He was a great representative of the Nehruvian liberal tradition. Mehta despised the Hindu right and was a ‘card carrying pseudo secularist’, as he mockingly described himself. Brought up in the composite culture of Lucknow, he had an innate faith in India’s pluralism. His publications exposed communal politics, reported extensively on riots and who engineered it, and backed campaigns for justice. This did not mean he was radical left either. He believed that the 1991 economic reforms unleashed India’s entrepreneurial energies. But the higher revenues at the disposal of the Indian state had to be used for the welfare of the marginalised and the poor.
It was this combination – of being a secular democrat, with a slight skepticism of the private sector, and an advocate of state welfare – that put him closer to the broad Congress umbrella. He was a self proclaimed ‘chamcha’ of Sonia Gandhi, defending her against ‘foreign origin’ charges, seeing her as a crusader of Indian secularism, and hailing her sacrifice of 2004 as an act of great virtue. But this emanated from conviction, not any patronage that Congress may have bestowed on him. And it did not blind him to the party’s ills. In the 2014 elections, Mehta wrote about how he could not and did not vote for the Congress for the mess it had made in the preceding five years. He even became an ardent champion of the Aam Aadmi Party briefly, turning disillusioned after Kejriwal’s first stint in power and resignation.
But being politically opinionated never made him an intolerant editor. He gave more space to criticism than praise in the letters column. He actively sought out right-wing commentators for opinion pieces. He allotted dozens of pages for essay length pieces by Arundhati Roy and occasionally, Ramchandra Guha. He could see Narendra Modi would win the 2014 elections much before most of the political pundits, and did not allow his own opinion of the man to come in the way. Mehta never imposed a uniform style of writing on his reports. He wanted his publication to be the home of all contestations and conversations happening in the outside world. Mehta showed that being honest was a greater virtue than being objective.
But perhaps in these times, what Mehta’s life can offer to those of us in the media is how to balance principle and pragmatism. Mehta knew who was paying the bills, and respected owners. He got to know who were the owner’s friends, and covered them well; he took care of the idiosyncrasies and whims of owners and their family members; and he said there was no space for mavericks and rebels in the mainstream media. He would publish sex surveys and cover stories on the life and times of entertainers to satisfy the market and advertisers.
This did not mean he would compromise on the fundamentals. He would stand by a reporter; he would show courage and go after the powerful, be it the Prime Minister’s Office during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s term or Reliance and Tatas by publishing the Radia Tapes. He would walk away when the owner’s interference crossed a certain line, which is why he would often jokingly describe himself as the man who started the most number of failed publications. On a debate with contemporary resonance, Mehta had written journalists should never take freebies. “Pay your way. For the four decades I have been an editor, I can claim, hand on heart, that I have never visited a restaurant or stayed in a hotel or travelled in an airline without paying the full bill.” He was despairing of the current trends in the media, and had even begun advocating regulation to curb the ills.Mehta was a complex man, but not a man of extremes. And it was precisely this skill to navigate the normative and the empirical, what is and what should be, that made him one of India’s legendary editors.