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India: Popular editor and journalist Vinod Mehta Passes Away - some tributes

8 March 2015

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Senior journalist Vinod Mehta, editorial chairman of Outlook India, passes away

Vinod Mehta and his dog named Editor

selected tributes:

1. Hindustan Times

Vinod Mehta I know: ‘Don’t worry, if we go down, we go down together’

by Saikat Datta, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

Updated: Mar 08, 2015 06:55 IST

A clutch of memories that define my most memorable moments in journalism rush in as my old friend and colleague Anuradha Raman calls me up to tell me that Vinod Mehta, my former editor and mentor, is no more.

It is a moment we have been dreading since December 7, when he was rushed to hospital, complaining of shortness of breath and chest pain.

Since then, it has been a roller coaster ride, up one day, as the man would peek through the various tubes sticking into him and smile his toothy smile, and down at other times.

The face, handsome as ever, framed by his shock of white hair, eyes staring away in wonder, even as pain wracked his frail physique.

In October 2004, as I walked into the building that housed Outlook, a weekly newsmagazine he started as the founder-editor, I was apprehensive and intrigued.

This was my first major professional switch, having spent my formative years with The Indian Express. I was all set to meet a man whose formidable reputation preceded him.

In some ways, I had already met the man much earlier when, as a young and impressionable reporter in Pune, I had picked up his book ‘Mr Editor, How Close are you to the PM?’

The book opened up to me the charms and the pitfalls of journalism, as Mr Mehta went about writing about his adventures in the colourful career he had led by then.

Editing Debonair, a magazine known for pictures of topless women, always seemed right on top of his CV, framing his persona in a way I suspect he enjoyed very much.

He worked hard on the magazine, pushing in some great investigative stories, interviews and humour, while also balancing it with some “tasteful” images of semi-clad women, hired on shoe-string budgets to keep the presses alive and running.

His subsequent adventures would lead him to the offices of the rich and powerful, keen on starting new publishing ventures, and Mr Mehta would keep hoping that at least one of them would respect journalism, besides the profit margins.

Obviously, many owners ended up disappointing him, leading to his resignations and days spent in penury, fortified with a great sense of humour and pegs of whisky.

But among the essays he authored, one left a deep impression on me as I meandered through the profession. It was an essay he penned on Dhiren Bhagat, an enfant terrible of Indian journalism, who walked into Mr Mehta’s cabin one day and left a deep impression on the man.

Bhagat would go on to pen some of the most devastating investigative pieces in his all-too-brief career as a journalist, but they were stories that only Mr Mehta could steward as one of the greatest editors of his time.

He worked with the mercurial Bhagat as he did exposé after exposé, until the fateful day when Bhagat was killed in a road accident, suspected to be foul play.

His death left Mr Mehta devastated and I could see his fondness for the man as I read that essay several times over.

I read it because it inspired an ambition that I hold on to even today. I, the young reporter, wanted to do work that would make an editor like Vinod Mehta remember me in his writings someday.

Armed with that singular ambition, I walked into his room that October, determined to make a mark on a man who loved journalism like no other man I knew.

The next seven years were probably my best years in journalism.

Mr Mehta was an editor who gave voice to every man and woman who had the good fortune to work with him.

Unlike that fine, investigative newspaper, The Indian Express, where voicing an opinion by youngsters was frowned upon, Mr Mehta encouraged people to speak.

If I found a voice in the profession, then my gratitude goes to this man, who gently encouraged all voices to be heard equally in the newsroom.

Known as a “Congress party chamcha”, Mr Mehta would happily encourage me to do some of the most devastating investigative stories against the party if I had the documents.

Once committed, even a battle tank couldn’t shake the man, as he would stand by his reporters and take the flak for the pieces we wrote.

Being summoned to court was like an investiture ceremony for the man, every defamation suit a gallantry medal in defence of great journalism.

Early in my career with him, as I chased down a major arms deal and its attendant kickbacks, the arms dealers were trying their best to shut down the story. They were filing suits in courts, seeking injunctions to ensure that the next story could be killed before publication.

But Mr Mehta gently put an affectionate arm around my shoulder one evening, probably aware of the tension that had crept into my face. “Don’t worry my friend,” he said, “if we go down, we will go down together. Just do your story and I will handle the rest”. Then, he walked away.

On another occasion, we heard a court in another city had passed an ex-parte order restraining Outlook from publishing anther investigative story I was working on. The order was binding on us only if it was successfully delivered to us in time.

Mr Mehta immediately walked across to the fax room and pulled out the plug. “Just go back and do the story Saikat,” he said. “Let me worry about this. Just get the damn facts right,” he said, flashing a toothy grin that people would see on TV later.

Every big story would be personally checked by him, late on Wednesdays and Thursdays, when the edition would be “put to bed”. His style of editing was to sit with a printout provided to him by his faithful assistant Sashidharan, and the reporter and the bureau chief sitting right next to him.

His editing was inclusive, with the reporter and others drawn into the process, and his pen would fly over the printed word. Quick discussions and debates would be held to ensure that the story was right and worth fighting pitched battles over when it hit the newsstands.

On another occasion, when I was chasing the Radia Tapes, Mr Mehta was waiting patiently at home, waiting to hear from us.

As soon as the batch of tapes were secured, I placed a call to my immediate boss, Ajith Pillai, with a code word that we had agreed upon because we were sure that we were under surveillance. “The album is great,” I told Ajith hastily, without even realising how obvious a code it was.

We called up Mr Mehta and rushed to his modest apartment, a rarity for high-profile editors these days. It was after 8pm and the man, true to his style was having the first of the two small pegs he had every night.

“Are you sure it is kosher?” he asked, while offering us a drink. “If it is, then let’s run it on the web, because today is Friday and we can’t afford to wait,” he decided.

That meant staying up the whole night and using a new medium called “social media” to start putting out what we could hear, verify and put out. At 3am, he called me to check if everything was all right and then went back to sleep.

That was his way of showing concern for those in the trench lines of the newsroom, gently making sure we were fine as a big story went out to create a storm.

Once I moved to DNA, I was looking for another editor who came close to Mr Mehta. Luckily, I found a man who had trained under him many years ago. Aditya Sinha would prove to be a “Mini-Vinod” as we started another chapter in journalism.

The Outlook office was just across the parking lot in Safdarjung Enclave, a place known more for the liquor shops than journalism. But meeting him frequently would remain one of the best perks of staying in that area, practicing what he had imbibed in us all.

Under him some of the best journalists I knew thrived — Sandipan Deb, Ajaz Ashraf, Alam Srinivas, Anuradha Raman, Ajith Pillai, V Sudarshan and a publisher who was more of a journalist, Maheshwar Peri, and many others who blazed their way through journalism under him.

Together, we believed that every week we could change the world and make it a better place.

A few months ago, when I picked up Mr Mehta’s last book, ‘Editor Unplugged’, I noticed a sudden and early reference to me. In those few lines where he remembered me, he ensconced me in his embrace forever. It was relationship that had shaped and perhaps, even defined me as a journalist.

Every youngster needs a hero. I have had a few in the profession. There is Edward R Murrow, who took on McCarthyism and its venal politics and 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.

Saikat Datta is the Editor (National Security) with HT

o o o

2. Business Standard

Obit | Vinod Mehta: The man who had editorial chemistry

Mehta was known to be outspoken and had an unerring instinct for what would be read
by Anjali Puri
March 8, 2015 Last Updated at 12:22 IST

What Vinod Mehta had, in two words, was editorial chemistry. Dina Vakil, a Mumbai editor who had worked with him at the Indian Post newspaper, coined the phrase, and captured what it meant, in an email she sent me soon after I began working for Mehta at Outlook magazine.

“Still remember him wearing his trademark papaya-yellow shirt, slumping in his editorial chair and looking utterly disconsolate until someone would come up with an idea that caught his fancy—the whackier the better—and then he would sit bolt upright and try to formulate the idea into a story that would somehow catch fire on its way into print.”

No wonder, then, that for every newspaper proprietor who dispensed with Mehta’s independent-minded, lively editorship, after finding it politically expensive, there was always a new one coming along, sooner or later, asking him to launch or resuscitate something. These firings and hirings, which Mehta came to wear as badges of honour in his later years, when the tumult became a distant memory, are narrated with relish in the two books that contain his memoirs, Lucknow Boy and Editor Unplugged. His own errors of judgment are not omitted, including a colossal one that forced him to resign from the editorship of the Independent newspaper in 1989, 29 days after launching it. A a story based on a dubious RAW report, calling Maharashtra strong man YB Chavan a spy, which Mehta ran with an eight-column banner headline, blew up in his face.

While his first assignment, the relaunch of the girlie magazine, Debonair, contributes great colour to the legend of Vinod Mehta, his reputation was built on his second one, Sunday Observer. Launched in Mumbai in 1981, on a shoestring budget, and with the kind of small, overworked, underpaid team Mehta reveled in spurring on, with a string of expletives and yet, remarkable accessibility, this was a newspaper Indian readers had never seen before. It was as different from the largely staid newspapers of the day as the unorthodox and open-minded Mehta himself was from, say, Girilal Jain, the then editor of the Times of India – an “ivory tower” editor with strong political leanings, rarely to be seen in the newsroom.

Vinod Mehta: A checkered career
Born May 31, 1942 in Rawalpindi
Education BA, Lucknow University
Launched / Relaunched Debonair, Sunday Observer, The Indpendent, Outlook
Memoirs Lucknow Boy, Editor Unplugged

Sunday Observer was sharply designed, and bursting with lively political stories and columns, sometimes by little-known writers that Mehta had decided to take a bet on. Featuring the first oped page in the Indian media, first rate coverage of the arts,and a feisty letters page, it was the sort of irresistible mix that Mehta would whip up, time and again, when he was given enough rope.

At Outlook, Mehta had a 17 year run, a luxury he had never enjoyed before. Frequently appearing on TV, and becoming a fixture on Delhi’s social circuit, he could have turned into an establishment figure. But he remained refreshingly free of pomposity and self-regard, and he did not lose his appetite for risk. As Editor Unplugged reveals, his bold decision to publish the infamous Radia tapes, which most of the media knew about but did not want to touch, led the Tatas (featured in the tapes) to withdraw advertising from Outlook, and strained his relationship with the magazine’s owners. Eventually, Mehta had to step away from the editorship, and the newsroom, and become editorial chairman.

As an editor, Vinod Mehta had a style inimitably his. A complex man – he makes the startling admission in Editor Unplugged that he has never known what is to fall in love – he exuded, at once, self-contained aloofness and deep engagement with his passions. It was sometimes said of him that he infinitely preferred creatures with four legs than with two. There were daily reminders that this sad hypothesis might well be true, and not just in besotted references in his columns to his dog, Editor. As you left the office in the evenings, you invariably saw stray dogs milling around the front entrance, waiting for numerous packets of milk to be opened, all courtesy Mehta. But, then, there was the equally curious sight of young shoe-shine boys and beggars crowding around him when he emerged from the office. Not the most expansive paymaster, and a great believer in no-frills offices ( one memorably, even lacked a proper loo), Mehta was yet a generous tipper.

When encountered in office corridors, Mehta studiously avoided eye-contact, but if you ran into him at a party later in the evening, he was loquacious and genial, especially if he had had a drink or two. When you met him after you had stopped working for him, he greeted you like a long-lost friend. Perhaps the hardest thing to forget about Vinod Mehta is the air of childlike excitement about him when he thought a story was worth chasing. He not just gave a reporter untrammelled freedom to run with a good story, he actually ran alongside. A ferociously engaged editor, at his peak, he took afternoon naps with his feet up on his desk, but by evening was pacing up and down, sneaking up behind reporters to read over their shoulders, and even reworking layouts with split-second speed.

At editorial meetings, his eyes lit up at the hint of scandal and controversy, and he was deeply suspicious of what he saw as preachiness or pretentiousness in a writer, though sometimes respectful of genuine erudition and originality. The worst thing he could say about a prospective columnist or a book reviewer was “boring as hell”. Stories are legion about Mehta’s knack of packaging a story more boldly than a nervous reporter had intended, especially since he was never too weighed down by political correctness. Once, in his Mumbai days, he famously gave a serious piece by a feminist writer on the pressures on women to conform to depilation and conventional norms of femininity, the headline: “ I love my hairy legs”.

While, as editor in chief, Mehta towered over his Outlook team in age and reputation, it was remarkable that he never presented himself as an omniscient figure. He seemed to know exactly who he was: not a lofty intellectual but an editor with a strong instinct for what would be read, and one with a great talent for managing a diverse, and sometimes disorderly, crew. It was his insatiable curiosity for any kind of story, weighty or frivolous, that helped this elderly man, who was so computer illiterate that handwrote his columns to the end, establish a rapport with the youngest members of team. It was striking how open Mehta was to being contradicted, and even being overruled, at noisy editorial meetings. But of course, the tough decisions, like the one to run with the Radia story and annoy some very important people, were always his. Unlike some of his peers, he took them for the purest, most uncomplicated, of reasons — that these were "bloody good stories" and he had a magazine to sell.


The above materials from the Indian media are reproduced here for educational and non commercial use