Says the coming together of journalist and politician is positively dangerous

The increasing corporate ownership of the media landscape in India could undermine its plurality and independent functioning, Vinod Mehta, Editor-in-Chief of the Outlook Group, said on Friday.

In conversation with N. Ram, Director, Kasturi & Sons Ltd, at the launch of his book “Lucknow Boy”, under the auspices of Penguin Books India and the Madras Book Club, Mr. Mehta said, “We are getting to a Rupert Murdoch stage in India where corporates are acquiring big chunks of the media”.

Pointing out that the great safety of the media is in its plurality, and echoing Arthur Miller, he said every time a newspaper dies a bit of democracy dies with it. It is important to have more newspapers and television channels under different ownership, a media concentrated in a few hands is a very dangerous thing and that is what is happening in India, he said.

Mr. Mehta who has been an Editor for over 40 years, also tried to address the conundrum over whether the journalist and the politician could be friend or made strange bedfellows. In his view, their jobs differed fundamentally; while the journalist's basic objective was to get at the truth, the politician would be engaged in evasion, spinning or sometimes even outright lies. “The twain can never meet,” and if it did then it was positively dangerous, he said.

Mr. Mehta, who read out passages from his book – the Lucknow immediately after the Partition, the corporate backlashes to the publication of reports about worms in a Cadbury's packet and the Nira Radia tapes and the souring of friendship with Union HRD Minister Kapil Sibal, not so much for the magazine cover portraying him as a mesh of Groucho Marx and Hitler but for exposing the undercurrent of the move towards Internet Censorship – also exercised the question whether journalists should be cynics or sceptics.

He would favour scepticism that involved doubting a fair bit and asking questions over cynicism that was destructive and represented a jaundiced view.

And, on the grouse of the political class that they are unfairly targeted by the media, he said it would be nearer the mark to contend that politicians create cynicism; journalists spread it around. The bottom line is to trust (politicians) but independently verify their version, he said

Middle ground

Mr. Mehta also spoke of his preference for the middle ground, particularly his fondness for Graham Greene's proposition about grey areas, and the rationale of setting the bar at a modest height. In his worldview, the author positions himself somewhere between a saint and a sinner and his aspiration was to be a “decent human being.”

In fact, his advice to journalists seeking ways to improve their writing is to read good literature and journalism. He cited George Orwell's “The Hanging” – probably one of his oft-cited examples – to drive home the point about how simple writing could be so effective and moving.

About his own book, Mr. Mehta said he had resolved to “tell it as I remember it” and would not edit it or suppress facts and avoid the pitfall of the effort being an exercise in self-justification.

“A memoir is like your last will and testament; one cannot hide things. Everyone's life is about victories and defeats and one must present both,” he said.

S. Muthiah, historian on behalf of the Madras Book Club, former West Bengal Governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi and Kamini Mahadevan, Consultant Editor, Penguin Books India spoke.