The late, great editor Vinod Mehta’s career in his own words. A long, delightful, rewarding read packed with seminal guidance and learnings.
Some time in June last year, I called a friend of decades, who had recently resigned from a senior editorial position at a well known Business publication / section. I won’t tell you its name or the language it is published in; just that he complained that it was getting increasingly difficult to work with the promoter.
The conversation brought to mind an essay that surely is the best, most insightful account of the joys and disappointments – indeed, the often completely perplexing uncertainties – of a promoter-Editor relationship. There is no better advice to help prepare an Editor aspirant, and by association, for a media promoter, or, for that matter, for any student and practitioner of journalism alike.
This is from one of the best writers and editors I have known, Vinod Mehta, who was also a warm, kindly, affectionate friend. In 1999 he had brought out a book, “Mr Editor, How Close are you to the PM?”, curated from 25 years of selected writings, as the cover promoted it, and when I met him some time in 2006 for a leisurely cup of tea in his Outlook office in Delhi, he graciously signed a copy and presented it to me.
The essay is actually the introduction to that book, and as soon as I had read the introduction, I wrote to Vinod, seeking his permission to reproduce the introduction on my blog. I didn’t hold back on why I thought that account deserved to be widely read.
Here’s what I wrote to Vinod: “I am keen to write about the book and generously excerpt your writings from it on my blog. As for your introduction to the book, I’m keen to use it in its entirity.
I seek your written permission to do the above – ie use your original material on my blog/site, duly attributed to you and in its original context. I balk at the innocent murder of English today, and am keen to showcase your (use of) language as a how-to for writing good English.
While language — which is being mauled by (some) ‘writers’ and ‘sub-editors who unfortunately and unwittingly seem to be endeavouring to give the unintended “below-par” meaning to the ‘sub’ prefix in their title — is one thing, the quality and forthrightness of the views that some of our ‘writers’ are willing (and able!) to express today is another thing entirely.
Therefore, for both — your writing style and your tuning-fork-forthright views, plus the insights from your experience, I’m keen to use your pieces on my blog. I’m not trying to make money here, or use them commercially; just trying to make sure the young and not-so-young ‘writers’ of today, who are threatening to turn into thought-leaders of tomorrow, can see why it is important:
- to be able to think and form opinions from the middle of the road without having a self-proclaimed “ideology” or agenda, and without confusing being-on-the-middle-of-the-road with sitting on a fence, and
- to be able to express those views with the beauty and effectiveness that only the simplest and most direct writing can provide.
We need young Hemingways who’ve been weaned on Sir Ernest Gowers’ preface to his excellent style guide, “The Complete Plain Words”. To help them on their way, we need to show them how you can do it. For that, I can see no better and more forthright material than your writings! So, please give me the permission to use your articles from the book on my blog. Thanks and best regards, Pavan
Vinod’s reply was, simply, “Dear Pavan, You are free to use the introduction to my book. Regards,Vinod Mehta”
So here it is.
This is a long read. Longer than most long reads anywhere, but I defy you to stop mid-way. I couldn’t. Or to not revisit this piece again and again to revel in the sheer beauty of the mind and writing of the peerless Vinod Mehta.
You have to do it your way: Vinod Mehta
If there is an accidental editor in India it has to be me. In 1974 at a party in Bombay, I ran into Susheel Somani. Six months earlier he had, with much fanfare, launched Debonair—the Indian counterpart of Playboy—and when I met him he was on the verge of shutting it down. The magazine had turned out to be a high-profile failure. For some inexplicable reason, Susheel had chosen a homosexual English count as the editor and his deputy was the well-known gay rights activist Ashok Row Kavi. Thus a magazine which was supposed to celebrate the female form and consensual heterosexual coupling was being edited by two homosexuals who made no secret of their sexual preferences.
I knew little about journalism and even less about editorship, but with the bravado which comes naturally to a 25-year-old, I talked my way into the job. Susheel said he would give me no more than six months to turn Debonair around. I cheerfully accepted the challenge.
By the time I joined, Ashok Row Kavi too had departed and I found myself with two charming ladies as assistants. One was in her mid-20s and the other was middle aged. They were united by a Himalayan hatred for pictures of naked women. However, I had one outstanding collaborator — M.G. Moinuddin. Moin was deaf but gifted and unknown. He was also, at that time, possibly India’s only professional magazine designer. He and I redesigned Debonair in less than 20 days.
I believe I was and am the youngest editor this country has produced, but youth, I swiftly discovered, seemed to be of little use. Ignorance, however, was.Thus in 1974, at the age of 25, with absolutely no experience, I became an editor. I believe I was and am the youngest editor this country has produced, but youth, I swiftly discovered, seemed to be of little use. Ignorance, however, was. Because I knew nothing, I read voraciously about journalism and editing and quickly learned a trick or two about magazine design. One has heard inspiring tales of copy boys in America and Europe becoming legendary editors. I did not begin with even a copy boy’s experience. Tool makers and electricians can, I understand, be created through on-the-job training, but an editor?
To set Debonair‘s new format and to avoid begging acclaimed bylines for contributions, I wrote large parts of the first issue under various pseudonyms. Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi was my only ally. He agreed to give me 60 minutes and thus was established the Debonair interview—a longish affair, shamelessly stolen from Playboy.
I remained in Debonair till 1981 and in those seven years the publication became both a critical and commercial success. Nevertheless, one fact greatly irked me: no matter what intellectual gloss I provided, Debonair continued to remain sleazy in popular perception. The magazine was not taken seriously. And neither was I.
I have to thank the present prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee for finally convincing me that the time had come for me to leave. The late Subhash Kirpekar had managed to persuade Atalji to sit down for an interview which turned out to be both candid and provocative. A month or so later, I met Mr Vajpayee in Delhi. He too seemed pleased with the interview but added: “What can I do, I have to keep your magazine under my pillow.” It was then that I decided to quit.
I was obsessed with the idea of a broadsheet Sunday paper. I knew it could be done, although I was not sure who I could get to finance such an untested and risky venture.In 1981, a solitary passion ruled my life. I was obsessed with the idea of a broadsheet Sunday paper. I knew it could be done, although I was not sure who I could get to finance such an untested and risky venture. Meanwhile, Mr Ramnath Goenka offered me the editorship of The Sunday Standard, the weekly supplement of The Indian Express, and gave me an appointment letter. (Aroon Purie approached me to edit Bombay, the city magazine he had launched some years earlier, but the offer did not interest me.
With the help of my then wife Rekha, a whiz at financial matters, I put together a project report and approached Ash win Shah of Jaico — one of India’s oldest book publishing houses. Ashwin seemed interested but he had one simple and relevant question: What is a Sunday paper? I took ten rupees out of my wallet and sent one of the Jaico peons to Thacker and Co. on Rampart Row with instructions to bring back a copy of The Observer published from London. Ashwin looked at the paper suspiciously; he was even more confused. He preferred doing a magazine like India Today. I persisted. Ashwin finally relented. He was prepared to give the idea a chance if advertising support could be assured.
I booked a room at the Yacht Club. Ashwin brought along half a bottle of Red Label and some peanuts, and I asked two reigning czars of the advertising profession — Mike Khanna of Hindustan Thompson and Frank Simoes of Ogilvy & Mather — over for a drink. I made a presentation to these two gentlemen, explaining at some length the concept of a Sunday paper and enquired if such a publication would get advertising support. Even before they had downed their second drink, both Mike and Frank were supportive. Ashwin too, seemed prepared to take the gamble, provided I put some of my own money into the project. I scraped together my entire life’s savings: Rs 50,000. Ashwin took the money eagerly.
I was first delighted but soon petrified. In my pocket was Ramnathji’s appointment letter. How would I say no to a media moghul who was only used to hearing yes? Sheepishly I went up to the 21st floor of Express Towers at Nariman Point, returned the letter and told him my plan. He laughed uproariously and pressed a button to summon his secretary. “Bring the Sunday paper file,” he thundered. Soon, a bulging folder was produced. “You think you are the first person to think of this idea. I thought about it five years ago. Here is the file. Look at it, everything is worked out — circulation, cover price, advertising, but it can’t be done in India. We don’t have the talent. You are crazy if you think you can succeed with a project which I abandoned.” I told Ramnathji: “I am 32, if I don’t do crazy things now, when will I do them? Did you not do crazy things when you were 32 years old?” He laughed again. “You will fail in six months. Keep my appointment letter, you’ll need it.” As I left he wished me good luck knowing, perhaps, that I would be requiring lots of it.
Ashwin Shah had more than one pleasing habit, but spending big money was not one of them. The first day I went to work in a grotty, crumbling office opposite Bombay University where a small; empty table in a dark, windowless cubicle greeted me. During lunch I bought a waste-paper basket and some writing paper.
When I look back at my roller-coaster career, I have no hesitation in admitting that the seven years I spent at The Sunday Observer were the happiest of my life. We felt like pioneers. There were nights I did not sleep because I was thinking up story ideas. The excitement soon infected the entire team.In two months I had put together a small team. M. Rehman (now with Time) who was my deputy at Debonair joined me and introduced me to Amrita Abraham, a thoroughly efficient though underrated editor who has, unfortunately, opted out of competitive journalism. Altogether, I hired six journalists at ridiculously low salaries. Moinuddin and I designed the new baby. It was the first paper in the country—The Telegraph followed a year later—to have been actually designed by a professional visuals man, as opposed to journalists who tended to abide by a stale and stifling protocol., And, when it was launched in August 1981, the look and feel of the paper received commendation from another master designer— Satyajit Ray..
When I look back at my roller-coaster career, I have no hesitation in admitting that the seven years I spent at The Sunday Observer were the happiest of my life. We felt like pioneers. There were nights I did not sleep because I was thinking up story ideas. The excitement soon infected the entire team.
Although it took a month or so to settle down, Bombay welcomed the paper with unequivocal enthusiasm. When a publication is destined for failure, you can tell from the very first edition. The launch copy of The Sunday Observer had success written all over it. Moreover, if there is a city in India which welcomes innovation and novelty, it is Bombay.
The Sunday Observer did what newsmagazines do today: wrap up the week. In my first editorial I promised the “immediacy of a newspaper and the perspective of a magazine”. We genuinely broke fresh ground. I introduced India’s first media column, which was greeted simultaneously with a sigh and the “dog does not eat dog” warning. I argued otherwise. Editors and journalists had suddenly become both visible and powerful; they had in some cases even acquired a “personality”, and while they felt free to investigate other people and other professions, they were reluctant to put their own trade up for scrutiny. Self-introspection was a dirty word in the profession. In six months the attitude changed. The media column was praised for its topicality and purposefulness, even if it occasionally veered towards frivolity.
We introduced on a regular basis the first full-page investigative story put together by reporters, something that I am happy to note has become the norm. The first syndicated piece — Khushwant Singh’s ‘Malice’ — appeared in the paper as did the first upmarket gossip column under the title “Gallery”.
I started the practice of using mug shots of writers of edit page articles in order to humanise them and took personal charge of readers’ letters — a practice I have followed in all the papers I have edited — because I believe there is no better way for an editor to keep himself abreast of what his audience is thinking.
New and dormant writing talent was discovered: Dhiren Bhagat, Abu Abraham (he was till then mainly drawing cartoons), Iqbal Masud, Anil Dharker, Bill Aitken, Frank Simoes, Nirmal Goswami. I even got Satyajit Ray to contribute a piece attacking I.S. Johar. The result was planned chaos. The writers argued among themselves, the readers argued with the writers and frequently savaged the editor. Some weeks there was complete mayhem. I remember one Sunday Observer regular telling me: “I go to sleep on Saturday night just waiting for the paper in the morning.” It was a terrific compliment.
Iqbal Masud, then the presiding deity of high-brow critics, complained that the Sunday Observer lacked intellectual direction. It did not have an ideology. I told him that was precisely my intention—an open paper which encouraged and invited debate and dissent and, if possible, graceful prose. All through my career I have been suspicious of publications which claim to be ideology driven, because ideology inevitably turns into dogma and dogma stifles debate. My own politics is largely devoid of ideology. I am an old-fashioned centre-left liberal, which is a broad enough church to accommodate widely differing points of view. In The Indian Post, I invited K.R. Malkani to write a column because I felt a Hindu counterpoint was necessary, although I disagreed with almost every word he wrote.
The Sunday Observer made pots of money for Ashwin Shah and he made even more when he sold the paper to the Ambanis. I got my 50,000 rupees back but, more important, I managed to tentatively establish my credentials in mainstream Indian journalism.
I am not sure if I suffer from the seven-year itch, but I was beginning to get bored with The Sunday Observer and was now desperate to get my hands on a daily paper. The opportunity arrived in 1987, but from then till 1995 my career took some extraordinary ups and downs, mostly downs.
Vijaypath Singhania, the chairman of Raymond, was one of the first industrialists to catch the publishing bug. A year or so earlier, he had launched The Indian Post with S. Nihal Singh as editor. It was not a happy relationship and few were surprised when Nihal suddenly resigned. Frank Simoes and Nana Chudasama approached me on behalf of Vijaypath and enquired if I would be interested; at the very least would I please meet Mr Singhania? I did not require too much wooing. Nihal had hired some of the best journalists in Bombay and Delhi (Dina Vakil, Coomi Kapoor, to name just two) and Singhania, the nicest of bosses I have served under, seemed ready to commit adequate resources. More crucially, he appeared to have the right approach: the editor could run the paper with minimal proprietorial interference. It would, I was told, become even more minimal if the daily looked like it was succeeding.
Once again I got Moinuddin to redesign the paper and slowly won the confidence of the staff. There was widespread apprehension that I might trivialise the paper or make it “sensationalist”. It did not take me long to convince my colleagues that tabloid journalism was not on my agenda — all I wanted was a kind of Sunday Observer but on a daily basis. The response to the new-look Post was instant and positive. I implemented four new features. The planned non-political, soft, front-page anchor; India’s first daily full-page coverage of the arts and culture which quickly became known as the Arts Page; the first opposite editorial (op-ed) page which sought to provide background, analysis, context and perspective — opinion was taboo — to news stories appearing on the front page; and the daily diary in a unique single-column top-to-bottom format.
I was attempting to make The Indian Post a two-in-one — a morning paper and a daily magazine — a process I continued and consolidated in The Independent and then in The Pioneer. Thus, in 1988, that is before cable television and CNN in India, I anticipated the competition to the press from television. My mantra was and is: let us not compete with TV in its areas of strength, namely breaking news and visual impact. If there is a big fire no newspaper can match the idiot box for spot reports or imagery. There is no contest between the static still, however brilliantly shot, and the moving picture. What, however, television is not equipped for is to tell the full story. In the case of the hypothetical fire: why it broke, how much damage it did, a list of fires in that vicinity in the last five years, and so on. If “magazine-isation” of newspapers has become the norm today, I can take some credit for the development.
Some of my writers I stole from The Sunday Observer, notably Dhiren Bhagat who broke many stories in the paper (he died tragically in a road accident in Delhi in 1989), and The Indian Post quickly became the liveliest, best-looking daily in Bombay. Naturally, it did not make money since newspaper reading habits are notoriously conservative. “Changing a newspaper is like changing your wife/’ one Times of India loyalist told me even as he promised to take a look at The Post
However, we did frighten the reigning Bombay monarch, The Times of India. Advertisers, always keen to find an alternative forum to the one-paper stranglehold, saw in The Indian Post an upmarket daily with a moderate but influential readership. Vijaypath Singhania was delighted at the response and for a year or so I enjoyed his complete confidence.
I am on delicate ground here. In my 25-odd years as an editor I have had the privilege of working with a variety of proprietors—Susheel Somani, Ashwin Shah, Vijaypath Singhania, Sameer Jain, Dhirubhai Ambani, L.M. Thapar and now Rajan Raheja. The owners have ranged from the small to the medium to the large industrialist. A great deal of what transpired between me and them is confidential simply because they confided in me when I was on their payroll. There is a certain sanctity to the proprietor-editor relationship which would be professionally incorrect for me to violate. Nevertheless, a few general conclusions, based on my experience in the trade, can tentatively be made.
Eighteen months after the relaunch, I was having dinner with Ramakrishna Hegde in Bombay. Hegde was all praise for the paper but was surprised that Vijaypath did not share the enthusiasm. I was staggered. “How do you know?” I asked. Hegde told me that he was on a flight with Vijaypath during the course of which the Raymond boss confessed the paper was causing him great “difficulty”, such difficulty that he now wanted to sell.
I could not believe my ears. I had been feeling for the past month that Vijaypath was avoiding me (once or twice when I rang he promised to ring back; he never did) but I never imagined he was planning to sell the paper at a time when it was on the verge of commercial viability.
I am on delicate ground here. In my 25-odd years as an editor I have had the privilege of working with a variety of proprietors—Susheel Somani, Ashwin Shah, Vijaypath Singhania, Sameer Jain, Dhirubhai Ambani, L.M. Thapar and now Rajan Raheja. The owners have ranged from the small to the medium to the large industrialist. A great deal of what transpired between me and them is confidential simply because they confided in me when I was on their payroll. There is a certain sanctity to the proprietor-editor relationship which would be professionally incorrect for me to violate.
I have found the mega-industrialist the most troublesome. Conversely, life for me as editor has been happiest with the rising and medium entrepreneur. Working with the big boys poses three sets of problems.Nevertheless, a few general conclusions, based on my experience in the trade, can tentatively be made. I have found the mega-industrialist the most troublesome. Conversely, life for me as editor has been happiest with the rising and medium entrepreneur. Working with the big boys poses three sets of problems. First’, despite their exuberant and proclaimed faith in editorial and press freedom, the temptation to “use” their own paper is well nigh irresistible. For instance, the two weeks I spent with Dhirubhai Ambani’s Sunday Observer in 1989 were pure terror because the audacity with which they were trying to topple V.P. Singh took my breath away.
Second, the big industrialist has just too many friends. Mr L.M.Thapar, the most urbane and sophisticated of human beings, has vast numbers of close buddies in politics, in the bureaucracy and in the social world. A newspaper, especially one which has been newly launched, needs to offend people every day since it must, simultaneously, be more adventurous and assertive in its coverage. Thus, on a daily basis at The Pioneer I was offending some buddy of Mr Thapar who, you can be sure, got back to Thapar complaining about the irresponsible editor printing ‘baseless’ stories. It did not make for a happy relationship. (Allied to the aforementioned is the hunger for a high profile. A paper is seen as a vehicle for upward social mobility. I have been asked, among other services, to arrange invitations to Rashtrapati Bhawan and the American embassy.)
One purely tactical tip to editors: get what you can from the boss in the first three months, not just for yourself, but, more crucially, for the publication in terms of staff, budgets, resources, technology, and so on.
Finally, if an entrepreneur is engaged in manufacturing steel or soap or safety pins, he generally hires professionals and allows them to get on with the job. Naturally, he will keep an eye on the enterprise, but on a day-to-day basis he stays uninvolved. Publishing, unfortunately, is a business in which everyone quickly becomes an expert. Three months down the line, a newspaper proprietor completely fresh to the venture feels he knows all that there is to know. It can lead to embarrassing situations. One morning, some years ago, when I went to work I found an envelope awaiting me. Inside was a clipping from that morning’s edition heavily underlined with a red felt pen. The proprietor had written in the margin: “You call this objective reporting. It is completely one-sided.” He was absolutely right. The only problem was he had cut out one of the editorials!
I remember spending an entire evening with one apparently enlightened proprietor discussing the perils of frequent proprietorial intervention. He was most eloquent and encouraging on the subject: do you think I am a fool to harm the credibility of my own publication, one in which I have invested so much money, he told me. Indeed, it was he who lectured me on the need to be fiercely independent. Less than a year after our conversation, he did precisely what he said he would never do. If you resist, you risk his ire— in short, your days are numbered.
One other tactical tip: pick your fights. Do not quarrel over small things. If the owner has a favourite godman, or if his wife is nuts about ikebana, indulge them… However, at some point a Lakshman-rekha needs to be drawn… the worst reputation an editor can get is to be described as a “fixer”. From here it is downhill all the wayOne purely tactical tip to editors: get what you can from the boss in the first three months, not just for yourself, but, more crucially, for the publication in terms of staff, budgets, resources, technology, and so on.
One other tactical tip: pick your fights. Do not quarrel over small things. If the owner has a favourite godman, or if his wife is nuts about ikebana, indulge them. I have always given in on trivialities. However, at some point a Lakshman-rekha needs to be drawn, and in India it should be drawn at demands for political manipulation (which occasionally involves “fixing” for the boss); this, when it happens, is the big fight and worth quitting over. Incidentally, the worst reputation an editor can get is to be described as a “fixer”. From here it is downhill all the way.
My idyll at The Indian Post was eventually interrupted when Vijaypath Singhania sent me a written note stating that the paper was harming his business interests… Vijaypath invited me to lunch at the Oberoi and ordered loads of Australian wine. Suitably fortified, he put to me his dilemma and regret. Dilemma: to either keep the paper or risk his business empire. “What would you do if you were in my position?” he asked with disarming candour. I remained silent and told him to do what he thought was in his best interest. Two days after the lunch I sent in my resignation.
On invitation from The Times of India, I moved to Bennett and Coleman. Mr Sameer Jain had requested me to launch an upmarket daily for his group along the lines of The Indian Post. After prolonged deliberations with my colleagues I accepted the invitation, mainly to forestall the furious Ambani effort to acquire the paper. Ninety per cent of the staff was against the Ambani deal and threatened to resign if the deal went through.
At the Old Lady of Boribunder, we were immediately welcomed by a strike threat. The Times’ union, led by R.J. Mehta, was dead set against the new daily, especially one which hired journalists from ‘outside’. We were plonked on the fourth floor of the Times Building and treated like pariahs. The tea boys declined to serve us; most of The Times journalists refused to speak to us; we were advised to enter and leave through the back gate. To say that we felt like prisoners would be an understatement. It took months for the management to arrive at a working compromise with the union. Eventually, the new baby, christened The Independent, was born in September 1989.
Most of the journalists from The Indian Post joined me and I again sought the help of Moinuddin to design the paper. Both inside and outside The Times, The Independent was described as “first rate”. Personally, however, I did not last long.
A couple of weeks after the launch I managed to get hold of a story which I thought was pretty hot — a genuine scoop. An American investigative reporter (Seymour Hersh) of formidable if dubious repute had published a book in which he identified Morarji Desai as the mole in the Indira Gandhi cabinet, who spied for the CIA just before and during the Bangladesh war of 1971. It was a preposterous and ludicrous charge, even though consensus prevailed that a mole in the cabinet did exist and provided classified information to the Nixon-Kissinger duo.
We got hold of a letter written by senior RAW officials to prime minister Rajiv Gandhi protesting against the vilification of Morarji Desai in which they also named (with corroborative material) the person whom they claimed was the real mole. It was the late Y.B. Chavan, considered by many in Bombay to be the father of the modern Maharashtra state.
The story was printed on the front page — and all hell broke loose. Mr Bal Thackeray threatened to burn down the Times Building; a Bombay bandh was called; Mr Sharad Pawar (a Chavan protégé) demanded my head; there were threats to my life; senior Times of India editors got together and virulently denounced their “sister publication” in The Times. The police advised it was not safe for me to live at my residence and for a couple of days I moved to a room in the President Hotel with two armed guards outside.
Some friends counselled that if I prostrated before the chief minister, Sharad Pawar, the agitation would promptly end. It was just a question of saying sorry to Pawar, I was told. I gave the matter considerable thought but finally decided against the step. If I apologised to Pawar (which I was informed he would happily accept) he would be doing me an enormous favour and I would be beholden to him for the rest of my professional life. As far as I was concerned this was the Lakshma-rekha.
Some do’s and don’ts
The alert reader will notice that many of the pieces in this collection concern the relationship between politicians and the press. The relationship becomes especially delicate for editors who need to interact with politicians, particularly those from the ruling party, on a regular basis. I have arrived at some do’s and don’ts which I offer with humility to editors and budding editors. These may not be infallible but for 25 years they have served me well.
The single most important freedom an editor commands is the freedom to criticise those who claim to rule. Beginning from the prime minister to a lowly MLA, the editor’s job is to doggedly and unsparingly monitor the activities of these gentlemen (and a few ladies).
I realise that editors are not Trappist monks. They love banter, gossip, chit-chat, easy access to those in power, and the hope — always — that the friendship will yield privileged information.
Indian editors, especially, have a tremendous fondness for entertaining and being entertained by the high and the mighty. Lunches, dinners, tea parties with ministers and prime ministers are coveted as badges of honour. A politician will reciprocate by remembering your wife’s first name or your son’s birthday. A cake, even some flowers may arrive. Alas, such conviviality carries with it one of the great dilemmas of political writing. “How do you write objectively about your friends? How do you dine with them and dine on them later?”
In India, I believe, politicians and editors are natural adversaries. Getting too close to people you have to evaluate impartially and censure frequently leads to unnecessary complications and heartburn. One should not, of course, assume a congenitally hostile attitude towards politicians, but one must never compromise one’s right to attack.
Editors, as a rule, are terribly easy to flatter. Vanity is possibly their supreme vice. In our fragile republic they carry additional heavy baggage:
- Many of them are in journalism because they are either failed politicians or itching to get into politics. Since they observe the exercise of “power” daily, they push relentlessly to get as close to it as possible. Consequently, they attach themselves and their publications to an individual politician or group of politicians hoping for a party ticket or some other sinecure. Ambassadorships, Rajya Sabha nominations, etc. are other allurements.
- Indian editors have a huge partiality for donning the garb of “advisors”. In this role they purport to guide politicians through the treacherous waters of public life, advising them what to do and what not to do.
- Another weakness is to become a “go-between”, carrying messages or instructions from one camp to another. In short becoming mediators — all of which gives them a vicarious feeling of power.
The dangers listed above are only cautionary. They do not mean that editors should not love politics or be fascinated by politicians. One British editor sums up the perplexity perfectly: “I want to see the inside of their (politicians’) homes and know their inner thoughts. I am naturally inquisitive. Also, there are politicians I both like and admire — which is essential if you are going to be interesting about politics. For a journalist it would be rather unsatisfactory to spend a lifetime observing something one loathed.”
So, what is the answer? My own formula for ensuring consistent and unimpaired objectivity is twofold. One, never ask for, or accept, favours from a politician. If you lunch together in a restaurant, pay the bill. Gas connections, jobs for your uncle, free trips for the wife must be scrupulously avoided with a polite “no, thank you”.
Two, by all means become friends with politicians, but these must necessarily be rare friendships. And they must be absolutely open. Your politician-friend needs to understand that the relationship will not stop you from being bitterly critical.
Post The Independent I made perhaps the stupidest decision of my life: I agreed to join The Sunday Observer which the Ambanis had taken over. Within a couple of weeks I realised what the game-plan was, and I wanted no part (of it).
Once again, much media coverage of my abrupt departure resulted, and while some sympathy was expressed for my fugitive status, a new wisdom began to take shape. It was conceded that though I may be an editor of some merit with perhaps a unique gift for launching publications, I had one vital, indeed critical, qualification missing. I was a rank amateur when it came to infighting, double-dealing, manipulation and back-stabbing, which it seemed were essential skills for both survival and success.
All around me I saw mediocre editors flourishing. They possessed minuscule professional competence but were extremely adept at intra-office intrigue and the felling of competitors. Indeed, some friends whose opinions I valued told me that along with journalistic capability I had to quickly become a “player”; otherwise my talents would go waste.
Initially, I found this advice facile, even amusing. Till then I had remained convinced that being good at one’s job was the sole requirement for success. Only those who had scarce editorial talent needed to master the arts of manipulation, colleague-stabbing and proprietorial sycophancy.
When you are down and out, self-doubt is inevitable. As I floundered in the wilderness with no job prospect on the horizon, I readied for early retirement and became a syndicated columnist preparing to ride into the sunset. It looked like my brief career as editor was over. My inability to become a schemer was, it seemed, a fatal weakness.
Happily, to date I have not acquired the aforementioned expertise. I remain dedicated to the professional principle. Even if I wished to become a first-rate “player”, I would have proved a gigantic failure since I do not have the temperament or the character for such dubious attributes. There are no regrets, however. I have survived — and not done too badly — selling my limited talent. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Jobless, I languished in Bombay for nearly two years. During this period I had the crazy notion of setting up an independent paper run by a trust comprising eminent citizens bound by a belief in press freedom. Despite much toil and despite the fact that I managed to persuade some of the most distinguished individuals in Bombay to join the board, nothing came of the project. Journalists have no talent for collecting or organising money and putting together a project. I was no exception.
The project at one time seemed poised for lift-off. The late J.R.D. Tata evinced more than a passing interest in the venture confessing he was a long-time admirer of The Manchester Guardian. The idea of a newspaper run by a trust excited him and he spent considerable time explaining to me how and why The Statesman experiment (and its trust) had failed. He roundly abused C.R. Irani, the current managing director of The Statesman. “That b. . . stole my paper helped by his accomplice there,” he said, pointing to Nani Palkhivala’s cabin. He was convinced a free press in India could survive only if the editor’s freedom was guaranteed by an independent trust. This, naturally, was music to my ears.
Soon, sadly, J.R.D.’s interest in the project waned. All the Tata directors told him to steer clear of the press in the interests of the Tata business empire. The old man wrote me a tearful letter regretting his inability to support such a “worthwhile” venture. With J.R.D. out — which meant no Tata financing — the enterprise died a quick death.
In late 1990, L.M.Thapar, one of India’s best-known industrialists, sent two emissaries to Bombay inviting me to launch a Delhi edition of The Pioneer, a century-plus-old tottering Lucknow daily, which had at one time Rudyard Kipling on its staff and Winston Churchill as an occasional contributor. Subsequently, I flew to Delhi and had a detailed discussion with Mr Thapar who admitted he had bought The Pioneer in a “fit of absent-mindedness while playing bridge”. He seemed a pleasant, posh and worldly-wise man fully aware of the hazards of the business he was getting into. He promised full and absolute editorial autonomy.
Because of my past experience, I had grave doubts. Friends urged me to reject the offer: why should Thapar be any different from Singhania, they asked. It was a good question.
Professional colleagues in Delhi were even more emphatic in their advice, but for entirely different reasons. They pointed out that I was a creature of Bombay, brought up in a special and distinctive journalistic culture. Delhi was the city of wily politicians and self-serving bureaucrats; here one had to grapple with “hard political news”, a task which, it was confidently assumed, I was unqualified to perform. “It is one thing to produce a paper in Bombay, quite another to produce one in Delhi. “Don’t come,” counselled one Delhi editor.
After receiving this kind of advice my doubts vanished. I would go to Delhi simply to prove the sceptics wrong. The challenge was irresistible. I accepted the Thapar offer.
I lasted in The Pioneer for over two years. My early association with Mr Thapar was not only warm and friction-free, but I enjoyed his complete confidence. Thapar’s own leanings were very much BJP inclined, but to his credit he allowed me to frequently take a firm anti-BJP stance. I have never believed in becoming personally close to the proprietor; with Thapar, however, I broke the rule. He enjoyed his evening drink, so did I and we spent many pleasant nights gossiping.
Just to prove the sceptics wrong, I introduced most of the Bombay elements into the Delhi paper. The arts page, the theme page (on social issues), novel concepts in an allegedly intensely political town, were especially well received. I soon discovered that most Delhiwallas were fed up with politics and party bazi which dominated the columns of other papers. The myth that it was impossible to produce a paper in India’s capital without reams of hard-core politics was spread by Delhi editors themselves. Since politics was a subject—frequently the only subject— which interested them, they forced it down the gullets of their unsuspecting readers.
The Pioneer, I was certain, had to be “different” in order to get a foot into the crowded Delhi market. I began my first editorial accordingly: “The last thing Delhi needs is another newspaper.” The daily soon carved out a moderate but influential (I hate the word “elite”) readership. Even its critics agreed it was the best-looking newspaper in the city—and some days it read well too. To say that we shook the Delhi publishing scene would be an exaggeration, but we did make many of the older, well-established dailies sit up and take notice.
L.M. Thapar had many fine qualities undermined by a single weakness: the boss nurtured and encouraged toadies. He appointed as chief executive a man I detested. This individual was spectacularly incompetent besides being unctuous and ignorant, but he was extremely prompt in lighting LMT’s cigarette. Such was my contempt for this person that I found it difficult to sit in the same room with him. Initially, the proprietor kept him at a distance; however, slowly the manager succeeded in turning Thapar against me. The falling out was so incredibly petty that when I was informed that such a juvenile exercise was underway I ignored it, as I assumed a man of Thapar’s experience and wisdom would quickly see through this transparent fraud. In retrospect, I should have tried to counter the slander campaign. Thapar was told that though he was the founder-owner of the paper and though he had put it together, I was hogging the spotlight.
The slow poison worked; Thapar turned against me, and even questioned my professional judgement. Although he had shown uncommon personal courtesy to me earlier, best demonstrated by his concern and assistance when I was seriously ill, in the last three months he had consistently humiliated me. The one publication I did not want to leave was The Pioneer and for the first time in my career i tried desperately to save my job. It was of no avail.
Benjamin Bradlee, who edited The Washington Post during its most illustrious years, wrote in his memoirs: “To be a good editor you need a good proprietor.” Bradlee had Katherine Graham, I have Rajan Raheja
Currently, I am ensconced at Outlook, which I hope will be my last resting place. Benjamin Bradlee, who edited The Washington Post during its most illustrious years, wrote in his memoirs: “To be a good editor you need a good proprietor.” Bradlee had Katherine Graham, I have Rajan Raheja. Whatever little recognition the magazine has received is largely due to his vision. He promised me editorial freedom when I joined in 1995, and unlike some of my other proprietors, he has kept his word.
The reason I launched so many publications was simply that I kept getting sacked. Boy scout? I don’t make a fetish about the editor’s traditional rights and freedoms. The best way for an editor to protect and promote editorial independence is to quietly exercise it. And pay the price whenever necessary.I have been in Outlook now for nearly four years, and hopefully proved I am no habitual “quitter”. After my unhappy exit from The Pioneer, the old doubts about my inability to get on with owners surfaced again. Critics said I was a little bit like a boy scout ever ready to climb a soap-box and sanctimoniously preach editorial virtue. Alongside, another disability was added: I lacked stamina, I was prone to start a publication and then run away.
I hope my stint at Outlook has disproved these charges. Also to be noted is the fact that in my first two jobs I toiled for a total of fourteen years; it was only after 1988 that I became a rolling stone. The reason I launched so many publications was simply that I kept getting sacked. Boy scout? I don’t make a fetish about the editor’s traditional rights and freedoms. The best way for an editor to protect and promote editorial independence is to quietly exercise it. And pay the price whenever necessary. This is precisely what I have tried to do.
Martin Amis, the celebrated English writer, disparagingly dismissed any random collection of journalism published between hard covers as a “junk sale”. In my case conceit has some role to play—all editors believe their reflections and musings have immense historical value, a legacy for posterity — but more than conceit and an eye on history, this 25-year- old assortment gives me some idea of how my writing has evolved. Or not evolved. Much of what I have to offer is clearly dated and of little value, indeed rubbish. However, I hope there are a few pieces which will amuse, or even enlighten.
I do not keep a scrap book and one of the difficulties of putting this motley selection together has been putting it together. Old files of Debonair, The Sunday Observer, The Indian Post, The Independent are moth-eaten and unavailable. To resurrect what I recorded in these publications has involved some pretty fancy detective work.
Do I have any advice to offer? Absolutely not. Editors who have achieved distinction in this country and abroad have all had individual styles. There is no “formula” for success in this business. You have to do it your way.
The only thing I have learned after a quarter century of editing is quite simply this: take your work seriously but not yourself.