A frank tell-all

A frank tell-all

Lead review

A frank tell-all
Print journalism is in crisis as never before with newspapers becoming unsustainable in the digital age. There is cut-throat competition and predatory pricing. There is also a serious credibility crisis along with steady marginalisation of the editor as managers hold all the aces.

Against this backdrop, Editor Unplugged: Media, Magnates, Netas and Me offers a refreshing, professional perspective on the issue. Sequel to Lucknow Boy, Vinod Mehta’s autobiography encapsulates the epochal changes in the media scene during the past four decades, interspersed with his views on public issues and personalities.

It is not the corporate ownership of the media that worries Mehta, but the growing Murdoch-style monopoly. He asserts that plurality in the media is essential for the health of democracy and argues for an independent external watchdog for the media. He also draws a distinction between the editors of the 60s and 70s “who suffered from an exaggerated sense of self-importance” and the current ones. He candidly discusses corruption in journalism.

As one who revels in courting controversies, Mehta carried the Radia tapes in Outlook, his biggest gamble. He considers it a turning point in Indian journalism. “The high moral ground we automatically claim for ourselves has slipped from beneath our feet.” The lobbyist Radia fell as power went to her head and she overreached, he writes.

“With all the skills of a grandmaster she moves her pawns around.” Mehta also takes credit for breaking the lofty code of Tatas that the group does not bribe or play politics. He also cites an article eulogising Ratan Tata in The Economist after the tapes were exposed as suspicious. His legal battle with Ratan Tata is still not over.

Mehta finds journalists “among the most insecure people on earth with egos as big as football.” Of course, he never had to go through the grind of a reporter or sub-editor as he started his career as an editor. He considers an editor’s job as 90 per cent perspiration and 10 per cent inspiration. “My principal mission as editor was to create an environment which allowed talent to flourish with a slight push from me.”

Editor Unplugged is strictly not an autobiography. This volume is less personal than Lucknow Boy. I have found the earlier work that mirrors more of his persona more enjoyable. What make this work enjoyable are his irreverent but insightful sketches of personalities, peppered with pleasing anecdotes and gossip.

After being an editor in Delhi for 17 years, he has had a ringside view of the high and mighty. He laments the lack of humour in Indian politics. According to Mehta, Pranab Mukherjee tops the list of politicians sans humour. A K Antony does not lag behind. Arun Jaitley “is hung up on upward political mobility and, possibly, the biggest gossip in Delhi.” Kapil Sibal “writes bad poetry on his mobile.”

On the centrality of gossip, this is what the Lucknow boy has to say, “...if you remove gossip from journalism, you say goodbye to 50 per cent of journalism as it is today. Much of journalism, the good, the bad and the ugly, begins as gossip.”

Mehta claims he had spotted P Chidambaram’s “rudeness and arrogance” as early as the late 90s. In a self-congratulatory vein, he says that Outlook’s campaign against Chidambaram’s ‘wipe-them-out strategy’ on Naxalites was instrumental in moderation of the policy. He says he has no heroes but profiles six people whom he admires. They are K A Abbas, Ruskin Bond, Khushwant Singh, Arundhati Roy, Sachin Tendulkar and Johny Walker. Mehta admires Khushwant for the courage he had shown to take on Bhindranwale.

Mehta, who calls himself a “reluctant chamcha of the dynasty”, appears circumspect in writing about the first political family of India. He states that the dynasty peaked under Rajiv (Gandhi) and also reached its nadir under him. He also touches on the tension in Indira Gandhi’s household due to Sanjay Gandhi’s excesses and the strained relationship between Rajiv and Sanjay. Mehta has found Rahul Gandhi naïve. About the loyalist-turned-critic of the dynasty, K Natwar Singh, Mehta says, “He was a superior sycophant, more educated and sophisticated than, say, Motilal Vohra.”

His assessment of persons can also go terribly wrong. After stating that Arvind Kejriwal is a creation of the media, Mehta writes, “We can probably speak of him in the past tense. He could be remembered as a comet which flashed briefly across the sky.”

Mehta characterises Narendra Modi as a puzzle as very little on his personal life is available in the public domain. “He became prime minister not through a popular vote, but through a consensus arrived at by India’s captains of industry,” is how he explains the Modi phenomenon. But Mehta did sense the Modi wave early enough. The volume makes breezy reading for a lay reader who will find enough material to enlighten him.

Editor Unplugged
Vinod Mehta
Viking 2015, pp 281
Rs. 599

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