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How A Lucknow Boy Changed The Face Of Indian Journalism

10/03/2015 8:07 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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In this Aug.5, 2011 photo provided by India’s Outlook Magazine, journalist and author Vinod Mehta poses for a portrait at his home in New Delhi, India. Mehta, founding editor of India's Outlook magazine and a fearless and irreverent commentator on Indian politics, died Sunday. He was 73. (AP Photo/Narendra Bisht, Outlook Magazine)

There are two types of editors in today's media world. The first type work absolutely for their owners, they are invested in their position, political connections and hefty salary. The second type is a much rarer breed. They will fight with their bosses day and night, ethics matter to them, they stand up for journalism and journalists. They are true editors. And a star among them was a certain 'Lucknow Boy' - the veteran journalist Vinod Mehta who passed away on Sunday morning in New Delhi.

Something that many iconic editors seem to have in common is their training in the school of hard knocks, their immersion in the churning cauldron of human experience. This certainly holds true for the trajectory of Vinod Mehta's life.

The early days

Born in Rawalpindi, a boy came to India as a refugee after Partition at the age three. He spent his childhood in Lucknow and didn't pay much attention to his studies. He graduated from college with a third-class BA degree, and did not seek any further educational qualification. He was ambitious, though, so he moved to England to find a job. There he toiled in a factory to earn his bread and butter, but his special way with words was noticed soon enough and he ended up in an advertising firm.

After a brief stint in the advertising world, he got an opportunity in 1974 to revive a men's monthly magazine called Debonair in Bombay. As he mentions his memoir Lucknow Boy, he was fortunate in not having to claw his way up a hierarchy. But it wasn't enough. He took up the assignment of writing a biography of Sanjay Gandhi. As he noted in an interview: "I was the editor of Debonair at that time. Nobody took me seriously. I thought I would be able to establish my credentials by writing this book. Sanjay Gandhi was a serious subject and I was a non-serious writer."

A shaky start

Around this time, Mehta met Girilal Jain, the legendary editor of The Times of India and requested him for the opportunity to write about politics. Jain, however, rubbished Mehta's journalistic calibre. The irony, of course, was that Mehta founded India's first weekly newspaper in 1981, The Sunday Observer. Over the years, he won an unshakeable reputation for his political stories and amazing op-ed pages. Mehta was a perfect 'cocktail maker' and he understood the pulse of Indian readers. The Sunday Observer was a great blend of politics, opinion, art, literature, cinema and gossip. But the owners were not happy!

Then came India Post (1988) owned by Vijaypat Singhania of the Raymond group. Again Mehta became difficult to handle and was asked to move on. After that The Independent ended his Bombay stint. Delhi called him with The Pioneer owned by L M Thapar of the Thapar Group, but by 1993 Mehta found himself without a job again. Mehta suffered because he was politically costly for his bosses, but that didn't weaken his resolve and Outlook happened in 1995.

The Outlook era

The Raheja Group, which owned Outlook gave complete freedom to Vinod Mehta. As a founding editor and later editor-in-chief he gave new dimension to magazine journalism in India. In his 17-year-long stint, he gave his journalists the freedom to publish brilliant stories, from a poll on Jammu & Kashmir, to cricket match fixing to the infamous Radia Tapes. He successfully countered the monopoly of India Today and confounded expectations. He carried long essays by Arundhati Roy and Ramachandra Guha, featured exclusive book excerpts on the cover, published letters to the editor that ran to five or six pages. He was an editor of the people, of readers and reporters.

In November 2010 Outlook published a cover story on the Nira Radia tape and exposed the 2G spectrum scam. One of the fallouts of that story was that the Tata group terminated all commercial and editorial engagement with the Outlook Group. It affected the organisation deeply but Mehta stood his ground. And though the Rahejas were not happy, they backed their editor.

The amazing thing about Mehta is in his last book, Editor Unplugged he wrote, "Despite the unpleasantness and legal tangles, I admire Ratan Tata and the Tatas. The Economist got it right: he has transformed the Tata Group into a global powerhouse... However, it is undeniable that some of Ratan's decisions have damaged the group's dirt-free reputation... I would like to take Ratan Tata to a four-star lunch. I promise I won't talk about Calamity Jane. Rather, we can discuss his two Germen Shepherds and my one Editor. I believe the lunch will be successful." What a wit! Interestingly, Mehta used to call his dog - a mongrel - 'Editor.' And this 'Editor' usually earned some space in the diary that Mehta wrote on the last page of after relinquishing the day-to-day responsibility of the magazine and becoming the editorial chairman of the Outlook Group.

In his autobiography, Lucknow Boy, Mehta didn't balk from revealing the truth about anyone, including himself. He fearlessly explained his political positions and addressed accusations about being a Congress 'chamcha' as well as his perceived closeness to the BJP's top bosses.

In a Live Mint interview he further explained:

"Politicians and journalists should never be friends... I can say with some confidence, I have no politician friends -- and I am proud of this. I have lots of political acquaintances. But the few politician friends I had, I have managed to burn my boats with them. As an editor it has never my ambition to make friends with politicians, though I obviously don't want to gratuitously offend them... The problem is, as an editor, I don't have to personally write against them. Anything that appears in my magazine is assumed to have my sanction and that I have conspired to print it. That's probably true, as well. As hands-on editor, I go through the pieces that appear in my magazine and I often encourage my reporters take that approach, not because I have certain bias but because journalists should explore the more sensitive aspects of a story."

A great editor

The success and impact of a human being's life is judged by his or her contribution to their world. In the case of media, the success of an editor is judged by how many more editors he has created. If you take the example of Mehta he has moulded editors like Sandipan Deb, Ajaz Ashraf, Alam Srinivas, Anuradha Raman, Ajit Pillai, V Sudarshan, Saikat Dutta and Krishna Prasad. He always stood with his colleagues and helped them succeed.

Saikat Dutta, the man who exposed the Radia tapes, now works as editor-national security in the Hindustan Times. In his obituary to Mehta he wrote: "Every youngster needs a hero. I have had a few in the profession. There is Edward R Murrow, who took on McCarthyism... there is Benjamin Bradlee, the legendary editor of the Washington Post who shepherded the Watergate investigation into the history books. And then there is Vinod Mehta, who lived and fought and defended a world that would remain gracious, liberal and open, wielding his pen and gentle humour, waiting patiently for the night to pass into a new dawn." A perfect tribute to a guru from his shishya!

With his illustrious life and career Mehta proved two important things. The first is that journalists and editors evolve and grow in the real world and not in elite classrooms. The second is that an editor can be close to power houses, but never yield under pressure, always standing strong for the true spirit of the fourth pillar of democracy.

We all miss you Lucknow Boy.

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