Veteran journalist Vinod Mehta dies at 73
New Delhi: If you can define liberal in any way, it had to be him. The sentiment is expressed by a former colleague of Vinod Mehta, the witty and irreverent former editor of Outlook who passed away on Sunday in New Delhi. He was 73.
People who have worked with him say that you could disagree with him and he would listen.
Mehta was editor of Outlook, the weekly news magazine owned by businessman Rajan Raheja, for 17 years, before giving up his role as editor-in-chief and taking charge of the largely ceremonial editorial chairman’s position at the Outlook group in 2012.
An influential, long-time editor, Mehta was credited with starting a clutch of newspapers before launching Outlook. He first landed the job of an editor in 1974 at Debonair, a Mumbai-based men’s magazine. Later, he edited India’s first weekly paper, Sunday Observer, followed by The Indian Post, The Independent and The Pioneer.
Born in Rawalpindi in undivided India, Mehta grew up in Lucknow after the Partition and attended the famous La Martiniere school. After acquiring a BA degree from Lucknow University, he left for England, where he spent the next few years doing what he called “downmarket jobs”, including working in a thermostat factory.
He found his calling in journalism back home but not before working briefly as a copywriter in an advertising agency in Mumbai and publishing a couple of books—Bombay: A Private View and a biography of Hindi movie star Meena Kumari.
Debonair, launched in 1973, was floundering when Mehta offered his services to its promoter to turn around the magazine. The rest, as they say, is history.
Mehta has described at length his professional journey as editor of various publications—a role he played for close to 40 years—in his two candid memoirs, Lucknow Boy (2011) and its sequel Editor Unplugged (2014).
How he was both wooed and sacked by the proprietors of the newspapers he edited is well known. He went through three newspapers in quick succession. The first was Indian Post owned by Vijaypat Singhania of Raymond and JK Group fame, a paper he revamped but where he failed to last beyond six months. This was followed by a stint with the Times group, which had launched The Independent. Mehta left after a month. In August 1994, after leaving Lalit Mohan Thapar’s Pioneer, Mehta called himself the most sacked editor.
He had to leave most of these places after run-ins with the owners over stories which did not suit their interests. Later, at Outlook, too, Mehta carried scoops from cricket match-fixing to the infamous Niira Radia tapes, which were transcripts of tapped conversations between lobbyist Niira Radia and prominent bureaucrats, politicians and journalists.
The scandal over the Radia tapes eventually cost him his job as editor-in-chief of Outlook, and proprietor Rajan Raheja offered him a respectable exit as editorial chairman of the group. But, instead of regretting his call, Mehta was very proud of the Niira Radia tapes expose. “In my careers as an editor I could think of no other story I had superintended which was of more compelling public interest,” he said of his decision to publish the transcripts of the Radia tapes that exposed the nexus between corporates, journalists and politicians, even if it meant losing the support of big advertisers like Reliance and Tata, companies which were part of the Radia conversations.
“Against the commercial loss were the spine-chilling contents of the tape,” Mehta said in his memoir.
Although Mehta appeared on news channels as a guest commentator and became a sort of a television celebrity, he never took the medium seriously. Editing a print publication was his highest calling. His ex-colleague and former editor of Open magazine, Sandipan Deb remembers him as an editor who delegated work and authority. “But the finest thing he ever said was, ‘I am a goalkeeper. Only if the goal comes through the defenders, I will catch the ball,’” Deb recalls. Deb worked with Mehta at Outlook for 10 years.
Mehta was admired by his colleagues because he was ready to carry stories and opinions he disagreed with. “He recognized them as valid stories. He thought of the editorial role as the conductor of an orchestra and give each one of them a full and equal voice,” Deb said.
“We have lost the last of the great editors of this country,” said Krishna Prasad, editor, Outlook, who had known Mehta since 1989. “We talk of ivory tower editors but he was a very rooted guy. He was very liberal, open to views on all sides, a fine writer and a gentleman. He wore his greatness very lightly.”
A self-deprecating man with a sense of humour, he often mocked the lofty chair of an editor. “We editors have a marked tendency to convince ourselves that those who run the country are anxiously waiting to be educated by every word we utter, or every word that emerges from our laptop. By calling my dog Editor, I was hoping to avoid the god delusion. My fellow editors were not amused,” he wrote in Editor Unplugged. He said he wasn’t popular among his peers because of his “phoney boy-scout image of a clean editor.”
Mehta did not have any gurus but admitted that two journalists influenced him: Nikhil Chakravarty for his honesty and fairness, and Khushwant Singh for his mischief and malice.
“To deny that I shall miss being an editor would be a towering lie,” he wrote in his book. “If the fairy godmother granted me the luxury of choosing a profession for my next janam (life), I would say without hesitation, editor.”
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