I have admired Vinod Mehta because he writes his column in the Outlook magazine and Times of India with uncanny humour and understated sarcasm. And I must concede that his book Editor Unplugged is a page-turner. It’s a combination of salacious gossip, terrific quotes, and surprising typos, and gives you an insider’s account of how the media works.
First the gossips...
I never knew that the Statesman (the paper I devoured in my growing up years) belonged to the Tatas and that C R Irani stole it under JRD’s nose. Neither did I know that then minister Ananth Kumar fell for lobbyist Niira Radia, forcing his weeping wife to run to Vajpayee for help. Nor did I know that Sheila Dixit, three times chief minister, stood alone in a party because her enemies had spread the rumour that she harbored prime ministerial ambitions. That is until Mehta properly scandalized me.
Mehta loves gossip. He says much of journalism begins as gossip. Match fixing started as a gossip in the dressing room. Radia Tapes started as gossip. Mehta hates Kapil Sibal. The lawyer had once wanted Mehta to meet him urgently at his home. Mehta rushed only to find it related to a book of poems that Sibal had just published! Mehta has words of praise for Radia. While he concedes that she was a fixer, he believes that, unlike Indian lobbyists she was on top of her brief. Importantly, she could talk intelligibly with Ratan Tata on the intricacies of Spectrum and MukeshAmbani on gas.
And then the views…
In the battle between editor and owner, history has always sided the owner. Ask Khushwant Singh. Ask M J Akbar. Why, ask even Vinod Mehta. Gone are the days when a Shanti Prasad Jain rings up his ToI editor to ask if they can meet at a time of the Editor’s convenience. This is not surprising. After all, the owner brings in the cash. Of course, as Mehta says, “Samir Jain made editorial subservient to marketing,” in the process prostituting the profession.
Mehta finds Indian TV channels noisy. “BBC and CNN discussions are equally heated but handled in an atmosphere of calm.” He says, “what is worrying is the pressure editors put on correspondents to produce ‘exclusives’ regularly. That is the manufactured route to exclusives and possibly jail,” he says with candor. He bemoans the crisis of confidence in the profession and is upset that journalists are deep down in the pecking order in terms of the value to society and deep up (fourth) on the most-corrupt sweepstakes.
True to his reputation Mehta spares none. Like: “Thackeray singlehandedly vitiated the cosmopolitan character of Mumbai.” Like: “Vajpayee had an unusual domestic arrangement.” Like: Quoting Michael Foot, “A politician, who does not read books, is unfit for high office,” he points out to Modi’s confession to ETV that he has never read a book. Like: “Dr. Singh loved being prime minister too much.” Mehta thinks that the lily-white reputation of the Tatas (“Tatas don’t bribe”; “Tatas don’t play politics”) got stressed under Ratan Tata. When the Tatas cut off advertisement support to the Outlook magazine following exposes on VSNL and earlier on Radia Tapes, Mehta almost crossed the line in a bid to kiss-and -make-up with the Tatas. But the Tatas were unrelenting.
… finally, the bores
Mehta twice quotes Girilal Jain’s claim that “he writes only for two people in the country, the PM and one other person.” Mehta repeats ad nauseum, the phrase “editor of forty years.” And he refers to the BCCI president as K Srinivasan and calls Rahul Gandhi as Rajiv’s younger son. What happened to the editors?
Mehta, now in his seventies, has had three liaisons. A love child (whom he is trying to trace) born to a Swiss girlfriend, followed by a failed marriage that ended in a divorce, he remarried at 60. In the world of MS Office, our man writes his pieces on paper and un-surprisingly calls it a humiliating experience. He is extremely critical of himself for having not seen through the bumbling bumpkin, Arvind Kejriwal.
By also revealing disgraceful details about himself, Mehta elevates his book to the level of readability!
Verdict: 5 hours of non-stop entertaining action.