In 2012, he was promoted to the ceremonial post of editorial chairman of the Outlook group. That was two years after he published the Radia tapes story in Outlook magazine. In November, on the eve of the publication of his second set of memoirs, Editor Unplugged: Media, Magnates, Netas and Me, he spoke to Scroll.in about the state of the media.
It's surprising you have joined Twitter, considering you recently wrote that social media and you are strangers.
For the moment, flogging my book is my number one priority.
I said i would never twitter.But the sequel to Lucknow Boy comer out on Dec12. I have to flog it since it is like my Will.
— Vinod Mehta (@vinodedmehta) November 16, 2014
Your book should do well given that your previous one, Lucknow Boy, was a bestseller.
Yeah, but I am not taking a chance. Sequels don’t always do well. So I am on Twitter only till my book is out. It is temporary. I have been forced by the fact that it is such a powerful medium. But I don’t enjoy it. I am a very verbose kind of person. Putting things in 140 characters… I am too old now. It is a young man’s game.
When you decided to run the Radia tapes story, what was your calculation? What did you think the repercussions would be for you and Outlook magazine?
When I heard the tapes, I of course calculated the damage they would do to various individuals and their organisations, whose recordings we were publishing. In that, one name which we gave a great deal of thought to was Ratan Tata. Not only was he a powerful individual, his company controls a lot of advertising. Both him and his company have a great reputation for integrity. But then I thought it would be cheating to do the story without putting him in. He was one of the fish in the Radia tapes. So we thought about what consequences there could be. But the material on the tapes was too compelling in terms of public interest.
Also, to some extent I worried about the journalists I had mentioned. Both Barkha [Dutt] and Vir [Sanghvi] were my friends.
Are they still your friends?
No. I am banned from NDTV. Previously, I used to appear at least twice a week on NDTV. But since the Radia tapes story, I have never been invited. And frankly, I don’t miss it.
There’s a chapter in the book called "TV and I". I have mixed feelings about becoming a mini TV star and pontificating every night. Of course it tickles my vanity. When I go to the airport, people recognise me. I come from a generation of journalists which never took TV seriously. We in the press did serious stuff, and they did the sensation.
But you are on Times Now rather often.
Yeah, but of late I have reduced my appearances there as well. Another reason is that some of these people on TV debates are so young, so much my junior, that I don’t feel like getting into a squabble with them, shouting at them, and saying you are wrong, wagging my finger. They are very young. And I generally do not like raising my voice. I don’t like raving and ranting, which you have to do on TV.
I find that a TV appearance takes a great deal of my time. The night I have to do a TV programme, I am quite nervous. One doesn’t know what one is going to say. I must have done 500 TV debate appearances but even today when I appear on TV, it’s a nerve-wracking experience. And then one finds that in a 90-minute debate one gets to speak for only three minutes.
Did you try to make up with Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi?
NDTV did a programme [to clarify and defend what Dutt had said in the tapes]. You must have noticed they ran a scroll at the bottom of the screen, saying Vinod Mehta refused to come for the programme.
I felt, who am I to tell Barkha that this is against journalistic ethics? I don’t like preaching. I didn’t want to get into a slanging match with her. I didn’t want to tell her that, "Listen, I am so many years senior to you, you’ve done something professionally wrong." Anyway, I had nothing to defend. The story spoke for itself.
Prannoy Roy called me up and said come for the programme. I said no. I was taking Editor [Mehta’s pet dog] for a walk. Prannoy said you have to come because you have maligned one of my journalists and you have to be fair to her. I said I hadn’t maligned her in your programme. If I had maligned her, it was in Outlook. She is free to respond.
He asked how many words, I said you suggest. He said 800 words. I agreed. Then, she had to send her copy on Wednesday. She did not. So I called up Prannoy Roy and said, "Friend, I can’t hold the page any longer. Barkha hasn’t sent the copy. He said give me 10 minutes." She soon sent her response. It is there. We didn’t change a word.
Same thing with Vir Sanghvi. He said, "Can I take a rain-check on my response?" I said sure. He took a year and then subsequently wrote his piece, that he got the tapes tested somewhere and they found the tapes to be fabricated.
Is there anything about the Radia tapes story you regret?
Any individual you think you were unfair to?
Technically, MK Venu. The cover story was about the 2G scam. Venu in the tapes is not talking about 2G but about Ambani’s gas matters. So we apologised for that.
How true is it that the Radia tapes is what resulted in your leaving active editorship of Outlook? Can we say that the story cost you your job?
Obviously, we had some trouble with the advertisers. We were blacklisted by the Tatas. I won’t say it cost me my job. By that time I had already been editor of Outlook for 17 years. And the Rahejas [proprietors of the Outlook group] had been very good to me. So when they suggested change, I said okay. I suspect that they may not have asked for the change had it not been for the Radia tapes. But I didn’t press the matter. I was quite ready for it.
It wasn’t just one or two journalists, the Radia tapes story took on virtually the entire media.
Radia tapes are a benchmark in seriously damaging the reputation and credibility of journalists, both electronic and print. Until then, only a select few knew all the dirty games that were going on. The public at large still thought that we are great patriots, we did things in public interest, we would never publish things that were inaccurate, that we would not be swayed by monetary or other considerations. But after the Radia tapes, a big question mark appeared about journalists.
In opinion polls about corruption, journalists began to enter the top 10 corrupt professionals. Then I saw another opinion poll that asked people how they would rank the service that these professionals provide. Suddenly journalists disappeared from the list that included teachers and scientists.
Shekhar Gupta once sent you a legal notice for your criticism of his story about strange army movements in Delhi.
He never followed it up.
But you wrote about that in your diary column. What is the root of your dispute with him and are you friends?
Well, if you look at this issue of Impact, there is a picture of us with his arm around me. Yes, of course, we are not the best of friends. We are civil and courteous in public. Any disagreement is only professional.
Are there any current editors you admire?
No. Khushwant Singh was the last editor I admired. But the new generation of editors. They are very good, very professional, all rounders, very successful. But I have nothing to learn from them.
If they are good, why do you have nothing to learn from them?
One of the reasons is that I like myself, if I could say that. Since 1974 I have been consistent. I haven’t changed my line. When I see editors wobble, go from one extreme to another, that is the first sign of professional weakness. I am not suggesting that people can’t change their minds. But there is a Laxman rekha. My Laxman rekha is pretty simple: secularism.
You’ve republished your biographies of Meena Kumari and Sanjay Gandhi, but not your first book, about your early years in Bombay.
I wrote it when I was 26. Some of the contents of the book…My mother, who is dead now, was ashamed when she read it. I wrote in that book about many things which a young man of 26 years would write. About his bohemian life, his womanising, etcetera. You don’t care at that age what you write. I still have a copy of the book and the publishers are chasing me for it.
Are you still embarrassed about it?
Yeah. You see, already they call me a drunk on social media, even though I drink very little. So, if that book ever came out, it would be dynamite for these people. For example, I wrote about my daughter in my previous book, Lucknow Boy. They call her a prostitute on social media, because I produced an illegitimate child.
For all the abuse on social media, you are one editor who always published letters very critical of not just your publication but also yourself. Sometimes they would be nasty. Do you think today’s journalists lack a thick skin?
I have no problem with what you say about the way I look, the way I walk, the way I write, the way I edit. But please don’t get into abuse and don’t bring in my family. You can attack me in any way and I don’t mind that.
Editors and journalists tell everybody that different points of view must be allowed. But about themselves they accept only one point of view, that they are god’s gift to journalism.
I specialise in self-mockery because I come from Lucknow. I developed an early taste for self-mockery. I think to mock yourself, you have to have a certain confidence in your ability. Not everybody can mock themselves. So in a way, I am paying a compliment to myself.
You have always championed secularism, even embracing the term “pseudo-secularism”. Do you think secularism is still alive in the Modi era?
The irony is that when these guys are in opposition they attack Nehruvian legacy. When they come to power, they rule by Nehruvian legacy. The first person that Mr Modi went to is Atal Behari Vajpayee, and Atal Behari Vajpayee’s hero is Nehru. If you see how the BJP came to power – to come to power they had to become secular. Advani had to give in to Vajpayee. Those uniform civil code etcetera, had to be abandoned. Today, too, you see that on Article 370, they don’t know what to do because they want to win the election in Jammu & Kashmir.
So you have hope for secularism?
I don’t think they will ever concede that, but I am not worried whether they concede it, as long as they rule by those principles. I certainly don’t expect Narendra Modi to say that he is secular.
You write about Sachin Tendulkar in your book as one of your heroes. Have you ever met him?
No. I don’t write about his cricket. I write about his sportsmanship and off the field behaviour and I write that he came to fame at a time when India was still considered to be a second-rate country. We never produced the best to compete with the world. If they did, they would fade in a few years. This chap took on the best of the world and competed with them. One writer said that even before India decided to go for globalisation, there was Sachin Tendulkar who showed India can produce excellence.
My other heroes I write about are Johnnie Walker, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Arundhati Roy, Khushwant Singh and Ruskin Bond. No politician, you will note. My publishers asked me to insert one politician. I spent a whole night tossing and turning in my bed wondering which politician I could regard as a hero. I told them I can’t think of anyone.
Not even Sonia Gandhi?
There are aspects of her I admire, particularly her dedication to secularism. I am not an uncritical admirer. The book has a big chapter on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.
Is the dynasty over?
No one can say. It would be easy to say the dynasty is over. They are definitely at a crossroads. For the first time serious questions are being raised about them. And this is the first time when there is a serious possibility of the dynasty disintegrating.
Can the Congress exist without the dynasty?
I think so. They have to contemplate a life beyond the Gandhis. There’s a Catch 22. For all its weaknesses and faults, the Gandhi family acts as a glue for the party. There’s always the risk that without the dynasty it would break into various factions. Yet there are so many able leaders in the party.
You write in the book that the UPA-2 years were the best time for political gossip in Delhi since the Emergency of 1975. Why do you think that was the case?
The previous Lok Sabha was a leaky one. There are so many players in a coalition government that each one has a different interest. You don’t have so many leaks when you have a monolith.
But now we have a monolith group in power.
Yes, but Mr Modi has more enemies inside the party than outside. And those enemies leak information. The story about Rajnath Singh’s son was a leak. Javadekar getting ticked off for going to the airport in jeans was a leak. Sushma Swaraj and Modi having a bit of a tiff in the United States was a leak.
I think they are a monolith out of compulsion. Mr Modi was able to lead the party to a victory, but they knew what dangers were inherent in his prime ministership, mainly the concentration of power with him. Mr Modi has now been on a successful trip to Australia and other countries but we didn’t see the foreign minister there.
Do you think the Modi government’s tight grip on information could be counter-productive for him?
Well, he’s on an extended honeymoon period. A journalist has to be honest about things you don’t like. As we speak, the Indian middle class and some sections of the Indian intelligentsia are mesmerised by Mr Modi and they see him as a messiah. I go for an evening walk and people I don’t know stop me and say we have to make sure Modi succeeds.
We have to wait till such time when the promises will need to be delivered and there is some shortfall. But right now, he’s riding a wave.
You write in Editor Unplugged that an editor must take calculated risk, but that there was one occasion when your calculation misfired and you had to resign. What was that occasion?
It was in the Indian Post. It’s there in my book Lucknow Boy. We did a story which said that the mole in the Indira Gandhi cabinet was not Morarji Desai but YB Chavan. And all hell broke loose in Maharashtra, because he is the father of the Maharashtrian state. And I couldn’t back it up. I had something, but I didn’t have enough.
Have there been other occasions when you published something but couldn’t substantiate it?
Yeah but they worked in my favour. They didn’t misfire. This one had misfired.
And that’s how you made enemies with Sharad Pawar?
Sharad Pawar was one of the people who ran me out of Bombay over the Chavan story. Then, when I joined Outlook, one of the early stories we did was Rajesh Joshi’s story on the NN Vohra report. Mr Pawar went to the Bombay High Court and got an injunction. I also had lots of run-ins with Mr Bal Thackeray. He burnt mySunday Observer vans god knows how many times.
Do you miss Bombay?
Well, Bombay has changed. And a city’s charm is also your friends there. Some of my friends in Bombay are dead: Behram Contractor, Mario Miranda. Others are, like me, in the waiting room. The other thing is that I lived in Bombay before the Shiv Sena came to power.
It was a wonderful city. A city of gold. You came there, all communities lived there, and the best man won. No caste, no religion. Then Bal Thackeray came and vitiated the whole atmosphere. I saw that in front of my own eyes. The Bombay we knew and the Bombay we loved was destroyed.
When Bal Thackeray died, both Arnab Goswami and Rajdeep Sardesai asked me to come on their programmes. I refused. You can’t tell lies on television. And if I had said what I really felt about Bal Thackeray, the studios would have been burned.