He won an open scholarship to read politics, philosophy and economics at Brasenose College, Oxford. His journalistic career began in his gap year before Oxford, when he started contributing to India Today. He continued writing for the magazine during his vacations and in 1978, the publishers of India Today asked him to start Bombay, India’s first city magazine. At that stage, Sanghvi was 22, making him the youngest editor in the history of Indian journalism. His popularity is such that his column, Counterpoint, is missed so much that wherever he goes, people want to know when it is going to be back and his answer is: “Soon.” Until then, here are some excerpts from an interview with him:
You were the youngest editor in the history of Indian journalism. Did you ever go through a period of indecisiveness and confusion like most people face while deciding their career?
Actually, no. I think I slipped into journalism by accident rather than design. In England, you take a gap year between your Oxford Entrance Exam and actually going up to Oxford. I was in India for that period just when India Today was launched. It was not a good time for journalism as the Emergency was on and in any case, most journalists were uncomfortable with the international style that India Today pioneered. I started writing for the publication because they were having difficulty finding somebody who understood what they were trying to do.
Obviously, they liked my stuff because I would come back to India during every vacation and write for them. In 1978, when I was still at Oxford, they were kind enough to appoint me the Founding Editor of Bombay magazine which we launched in the summer of 1979, a couple of weeks after I finished my finals at Oxford and came back to Bombay. Would I have become a journalist if I had not got these breaks even before I went to university? Probably not. Sometimes, it is all about being in the right place at the right time. Luck is a primary component of success.
How did you get interested in journalism?
I didn’t really. I had done all the usual things at school: editor of the school newspaper, etc. But, it was never a serious career option, mainly because it paid so badly. But, once I started writing for India Today as a student and they were generous enough to make me the editor at 22, I think I just followed the path of least resistance.
How were your initial years in this field? Was it tough to understand the work culture here since you were very young and had freshly returned from abroad?
Not really. I had no experience of work culture because I lived a fairly indolent life as a student. I guess it would have been different if I had worked in England and then contrasted the two work cultures. But, remember that British journalism was a fairly lazy, disorganised business in the 1970s.
Could you share with us some interesting experiences with famous people you have interacted with?
Gosh, I don’t know. I’m very bad at telling anecdotes about famous people. On the other hand, one of the few good things about journalism as a career is that you can probably meet nearly everybody you have ever wanted to meet. I don’t think that there is a single person in India who I find interesting and have not met. That’s the good part. The bad part is that most famous people are not terribly interesting. The rich can be boastful. Politicians can be tiresome. And, most film stars are always slightly shorter than they appear on screen!
Is there any person in the media who has left a lasting impression on you?
Loads of people in the media have been huge influences. I learnt about editing from Aroon Purie, my first boss. I always admired the panache of Nari Hira, the pioneer of the magazine revolution in India. Aveek Sarkar was my boss for many years and he has probably been the greatest influence on me, both in terms of journalism and in terms of handling creative people. Shobhana Bhartia has been my boss since 1999 and it is fair to say that I would not be where I am today without her support.
Among the current lot, there are many outstanding writers. I read all the usual columnists: MJ Akbar, Shekhar Gupta, Kanchan Gupta, Chandan Mitra, Vinod Mehta, Siddharth Vardarajan, and many, many others. In the new generation, Mihir S Sharma is a star. I have never met him but he is clearly the finest columnist of his generation.
You are among the very few journalists who have made a successful transformation from print to TV to the internet. What do you think is thekey to it?
Again, the right place and the right time. Urmila Gupta, who was then with Doordarshan, persuaded me to anchor a weekly programme in 1993. I don’t think I was very good but this was before the advent of private TV, so in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man can be king! In 1996/7, when the private channels began to do news, they picked on the existing talent and I happened to be around. Then, about six years ago, I tired of doing the usual discussion programmes in which anchors encourage people to shout at each other and thought that feature television in India needed a new focus. I was very lucky that Rahul Johri and Aditya Tripathi of Discovery Travel and Living felt the same way. They asked me to do A Matter of Taste, a show that took me out of the studio for the first time and created a new kind of TV feature for the Indian audience. Rahul got me back for Asian Diary, which has been seen all around the world on TLC, as I discover each time I travel.
Then, Smita Chakraborty and Monica Narula of NDTV Good Times asked me to design a fun show that no one had done before and we came up with Custom Made for Vir Sanghvi, which is among the best-remembered of my shows. In the late ’90s, I used to do an interview show called Star Talk for the old Star News, which later became Cover Story on Star World. I used to enjoy doing it because in that era, there were relatively few interview shows and famous people were always willing to come to the studio and talk freely. What I liked about those shows was that we could get anybody we wanted because the format was so loose. I think I interviewed everyone, from Shah Rukh Khan to Sonia Gandhi to Dara Singh to Ratan Tata.
These days, every anchor and his dog does an interview show. The stars are controlled by a vast PR machinery. Politicians of consequence refuse to come to the studio. Sports stars have exclusive contracts. So, you end up interviewing stars only when they have films to promote and need you. And, political interviews consist of anchors trying to prod second-division politicians to say something indiscreet which they can twist and blow up in the channel’s press releases. The point of many political interviews these days is to plant a story about the interview in the next day’s paper. Nobody actually watches these interview shows. I felt the need to go beyond this tired format and I was very lucky when Rasika Tyagi and Saurabh Yagnik of Star spoke to Teachers and they agreed to sponsor a series of one-hour in-depth profiles which went beyond the interview format. I enjoyed doing Achievers Club because at least that show gave you the true measure of the man or the woman I was profiling.
I’ve been doing interview shows for over a decade now, but the impact that Achievers Club has had still staggers me. I met two of my guests, Amjad Ali Khan and Vikas Khanna, recently and they told me that they had the same experience. The viewers have told me that they changed their minds about Vidya Balan and Deepak Chopra after seeing the shows I did with them.
What about the rise of the internet?
That’s inevitable, isn’t it? As new media emerges, you must learn to adapt. When I launched virsanghvi.com some years ago, it was the first full-fledged site launched by a journalist in India. Initially, I was aware that I was taking a huge risk, but the response has overwhelmed me and the gamble has paid off. So it is with Twitter. Many journalists complain that it is populated by abusive trolls, professional haters and what the anchor and columnist Sagarika Ghose has termed, internet Hindus. Fair enough. I concede the point. But, just look at the numbers. I have over five and a half lakh followers. If 500 of them are noisy trolls, it doesn’t really matter. They add up to less than 0.1 per cent of my total Twitter followers.
Which of the three mediums do you prefer?
I always say that I am media neutral but that my true passion is writing. TV is a collaborative effort so you lose control somewhere along the line. Writing is a solitary activity. What you write may be good or it may be rubbish. But, it’s always your own work.
Over the years, how do you think the media has evolved?
I think the changes have just begun. It’s foolish to pretend that our media will not follow the international pattern. So, here is how I see things evolving, at least in the English language field. The printed newspaper is a dinosaur. The content and the brand will survive but five years from now, people will ask if it is really necessary to cut down so many trees and run so many presses to create a product that can be delivered over the internet with the press of a button. General interest magazines and news magazines will face a similar crisis. Niche magazines (like this one, perhaps) will survive and may even flourish. With the coming of 4G in a couple of years, the distinction between TV and the internet will become meaningless. We will all get our TV through 4G telephony. Cable TV operators and satellite dish companies will have to adjust. All the TV channels will have to learn to cope in an era of content on demand.I admire Raghav Bahl of TV 18 for having seen the future and sewn up a 4G alliance. As always, he has proved to be a visionary.
Will the social media take over the role of other mediums of information—print, TV, radio—and play a vital role in forming opinions? You are an active blogger as well.
I don’t think there will be a single source of influence or information. News will become a capitalistic democracy. You pay your money and make your choice from all the media that are available.
Of late, there seems to be a rising concern about social media, with Kapil Sibal and the Press Council of India Chairperson Justice Markandey Katju showing concern over its content and effect. What are your views?
My position on social media is simple enough. I oppose any moves to censor or regulate them. But equally, I do not accept the contention of some bloggers that social media must remain above the law. An article on my website or a tweet on my Twitter feed are as subject to the law of the land as an article I write in Society or the Hindustan Times or a show I do on any TV channel.
How did you respond to the whole Niira Radia tapes controversy?
It was a nightmare, an utter and complete nightmare. I said at the time—to many publications, including Society, which put me on the cover—that the tapes had been doctored and fabricated. I remembered having had conversations but that was no secret. For instance, when I was doing a column on the exploitation of India’s natural resources, I called Mrs Radia to get the views of her client. I called other PR people for the same column to get the views of their clients. When the column appeared, Mrs Radia and Tony Jesudasan, who handles PR for another large conglomerate, were actually quoted. So, it was hardly a secret, behind-the-scenes talk. My problem was that the conversation that was planted in various publications did not accord with my recollection of what I had said. A second conversation had clearly been edited, doctored and distorted. The trouble is that none of us journalists—and I include myself in this category—ever bother to authenticate anything before we rush to the press. We think that if we can hear it then of course it must be true. Most of us are naïve about technology and do not realise how things can be fabricated. Even I did not realise that these fabrications could, in fact, be exposed by audio scientists. Then, fortunately for me, somebody planted a conversation that Shanti Bhushanji had allegedly had with Amar Singh, offering to take money to fix judges and file public interest litigations. I don’t always agree with Shanti Bhushanji but his integrity is unimpeachable. Though two labs in India said that the conversations were accurately recorded, Prashant Bhushan took the tape to a lab in Hyderabad which found that it had been doctored.
Inspired by Prashant’s example, I decided to go beyond Hyderabad and to approach the best labs in the world. I went to two labs in the US that are used by the FBI and the Secret Service and I went to a highly-regarded lab in London that is used by the police there. Their reports vindicated my position. One conversation had been doctored, edited and manipulated. A second conversation had been created electronically (like the Shanti Bhushan conversation). The voice sounded like mine. But, it wasn’t. The lab conducted tests of the voice on the tape and compared it to my voice. It concluded that the two voices were ‘completely different.’ I was relieved when the vindication finally arrived. And, I recognise that this episode will be regarded eventually as no more than a blip in a long career. But, nothing is going to give me back the months of anger, depression and frustration that I felt when these doctored tapes were planted.
Does it still bother you that people behind the leaks have not been found because you may never be able to know the reason behind the selective leakage?
Well, there are many theories and suspects. The government has told the Supreme Court that the tapes have been tampered with and it is investigating the service provider. Vinod Mehta claims in his book that the first leaks came from a corporate house and so on. I doubt if we will ever know the truth.
Since you spearheaded lifestyle journalism in India, do you think it is going in the right direction?
I didn’t. All of us did. Society and Bombay came out within weeks of each other. So, you guys are as qualified to answer this question as I am. Ask Nari. Or, ask Shobhaa Dé, who was the real pioneer in this form of writing.
Among the many topics that you write about, what do you like the most?
That’s like asking me what my favourite dish is! I really don’t have any favourites. My principle is the same. If you are writing about fashion or fragrance, take it as seriously as you would take politics. And, if you are writing about politics, make it as interesting as fashion or fragrance.
By Meeta Mishra