By Shelton A. Gunaratne –
A ‘Ringside View’
MOORHEAD, MN– I had a “ringside view” (forgive me for using Manik de Silva’s patois) of Ranjith Wijewardene in 1993, more than a quarter-century after I quit Lake House. As mentioned in Part 2, he was on the board that interviewed me for the coveted WPI fellowship offered for the first time to a Ceylon journalist in 1966. Intuitively, I feel that as the Lake House boss, he had to support me because I was the only candidate from his own company.
Considering this background, I had corresponded with Ranjith a couple times, but I couldn’t meet with him on any of my rare visits to Ceylon/Sri Lanka during the ensuing quarter century. Our first meeting was on 13 June 1991 when I tagged on to Observer editor H. L. D. Mahindapala to attend D. R. Wijewardene Memorial Award Ceremony at the Sri Lanka Foundation. But that was not the appropriate occasion for a meaningful chat, let alone to find out why Lake House refused my application to grant no-pay leave to do a master’s degree at the University of Oregon on a $1,000 scholarship from the Reader’s Digest Foundation
Chief editor Siri Ranasinghe (now a director of the WNL and an initiator of the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka that he chaired for two terms since 2012) had helped to “resurrect” the Lankadeepa in 1986 as the Wijeya group’s first newspaper. In 1991, when I was on a 10-week “internship” at the ANCL’s Observer during my summer break, Siri asked me to conduct a coaching session for Lankadeepa journalists. I did so at their newsroom on 14 August .
I told the Lankadeepa journalists that the American newspapers of the 1990s used the principles of design–balance, contrast, proportion, and unity–to layout the front pages of each section. The result was a pleasing mixture of text, contrasting headlines, and photos with each story and the appertaining material placed within contrasting rectangular spaces to provide either a vertical or horizontal overall format. [During this  visit Lankadeepa staff writer Ranjit Nimalasiri interviewed me to write a feature on “Rights and responsibilities of a journalist in a democracy” published on 10 September.]
Now, let me cite from p. 143 of my autobiography, which provides the gist of the “conversation” that Ranjith and I had during my unofficial  visit to Wijeya Newspapers:
Although he [Ranjith] had agreed to meet with me during my field trip to Sri Lanka in 1971-72, a meeting failed to materialize until toward the very end of this visit (August 8, 1993). Wijeyawardene, now the chairman of Wijeya Publications, had a cordial half-hour discussion with me in his office.
We talked about how freedom of the press could be enshrined as an unquestionable right. I suggested that political pressure demanding the adoption of a constitutional amendment (resembling the US First Amendment) might be the solution. I thanked him for being on the selection board that chose me, “Weligama Podda” of yore, for the incredible American adventure that elevated me to global citizenship. He responded with his characteristic non-committal laughter and thanked me for the training session I conducted for the Lankadeepa journalists in 1991. After the meeting with the boss, Lankadeepa editor Siri Ranasinghe sprang a surprise by introducing my former Dinamina colleague D.C. Karunaratne as the new consultant to Lankadeepa.
More recently, in early April 2013, during an unplanned visit to Wijeya Newspapers, I met with Ranjith by chance as he arrived with his retinue about noon. He recognized me instantly, and invited my wife Yoke Sim and me to his air-conditioned office for tea. We had a cordial chat for approximately a half-hour about problems related to advertising and press freedom. We exchanged views on the meaning of press freedom in the context of the cultural differences between the philosophies of the East and the West. I explained to him that my views on press freedom had considerably changed since our last meeting two decades ago.
I told him that Sri Lanka news media should adopt the Buddhist approach of mindful journalism to resolve the ethical/moral issues arising from the clash of conventional mass mediated journalism and citizen journalism made possible by inexpensive digital technologies, particularly Web 2 introduced at the turn of this century. I pointed out that editors guilds, press councils, and press complaints commissions would be no more than stop-gap measures that would not resolve the social and moral pollution (dukkha) caused by the adoption of Western journalistic values and styles.
I knew that Ranjith and his two chief editors, Siri Ranasinghe of Lankadeepa and Sinha Ratnatunga of the Sunday Times– both of whom have been inducted into the directorate of WNL in recognition of their dedication that has enabled the Wijeya group to be the dominant force in the Sunday newspaper market–had worked hard to elevate “press freedom” through the editors’ guild, which has set up a college of journalism, a press institute, and a press complaints commission (as a substitute for the dormant press council set up by legislative enactment). But all these bodies are based on the alien Enlightenment presumption of the press as the Fourth Estate–an independent investigative body adversarial to the executive, legislative, and judicial estates.
I suggested that if all journalists were trained to follow the eightfold magga voluntarily addressing the three dimensions of sila (morality/ethics), panna (wisdom/compassion) and samadhi (mindfulness/concentration), the question of imposing top-down codes of ethics would not arise. This is the ziran-wuwei (spontaneity-non-action) approach consonant with Buddhism and Daoism. I told him that the Chinese view of the universe in terms of the Yijing (Book of Changes) model asserts that everything and every being in cyclic existence is interdependent, interconnected and interactive. The Buddhist paticca samuppada model illustrates this absolute truth. Therefore, the press alone cannot occupy the status of an independent Fourth Estate, which is an oxymoronic figment of imagination of the age of “Enlightenment.” Freedom and responsibility are coterminous.
To put it in a nutshell, journalism must reflect the virtues of right speech, right action, right livelihood, right understanding, right intention/compassion, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. We can slash much of our social dukkha if all communicators, including journalists, were to voluntarily practice these guidelines. The license to violate any of these indices is not freedom. Publishers who used journalism to increase the craving and attachment of people, the source of all dukkha, were violating the principle of right livelihood.
Comparisons and Contrasts
As I noted at the beginning of Part 1 of this essay, when I referred to Ranjith as a “chip of the old block,” I did so light-heartedly knowing full well that no two beings are alike. I have seen DRW’s portrait at Lake House so often that I cannot forget the physical (rupa) resemblance of Ranjith to his father. But the mind (nama) component of the two shows both similarities and differences.
“I cannot presume to be a ‘chip.’ I was 13 when my father died. He was ailing for two years before that, but he was strong in resolve and in his decision-making. I am nowhere near matching that,” Ranjith told me in a recent correspondence. It attests to Ranjith’s humility and his harmony-oriented Winnie the Pooh characteristics etched on to his dispositions (sankhara) passed on to him by his dad who also happened to be sensitive, caring, warm and giving.
How do the two compare and contrast in terms of the universally accepted norms related to the behavior of the nama components of the Five Aggregates as evident in their conformity to the eightfold magga in its three-dimensional form?
I will look at the sila dimension because it is the aspect that mostly relates to lay people who are expected to observe the five precepts as a matter of course.
We can judge ethical conduct, based on love and compassion, in terms of right speech, right action and right livelihood. Those engaged in mass communication and journalism, in particular, are invariably expected to practice these norms.
Both DRW and Ranjith became successful in newspaper publishing because they followed the middle path of right speech. They did not intentionally propagate untruths, or resort to backbiting and slander intended to engender hatred, disunity and disharmony among people. Both refrained their publications from excessive use of idle foolish babble and gossip (as seen in some current online news outlets that allow people to shoot from the hip and insult each other–all in the pretext of “press freedom.” Although DRW followed his mother and had a Buddhist upbringing, perhaps he failed to understand that omission of the other side of an issue was a breach of the fourth precept–abstaining from false speech. Hulugalle records that DRW “did not like tight-rope performances and warned leader-writers against the feeling that there is always another side to a question.” After his bitter experience with Esmondsization at Lake House and Wijeya group’s dependence on state advertising, Ranjith has probably included intentional omission as a violation of the fourth precept. Despite his pro-UNP leanings and his younger son Ruwan being the current UNP state minister of defense, the Wijeya group has avoided the practice of political-partisan journalism that resulted in the takeover of Lake House.
Right action guided both DRW and Ranjith who followed similar action in purchasing doddering businesses to establish their newspapers by moral, honorable and peaceful means without causing harm to others.
They both adhered to the principle of right livelihood because they did not make unconscionable profits by promoting arms and lethal weapons, poisons, animal slaughter and cheating. But both depended heavily on advertising to make their newspapers commercially profitable.
However, as Hulugalle points out, DRW “had no obsession about money-making. His only obsession was his newspapers,” especially the CDN. Ranjith dutifully followed DRW’s strategies when he established the Wijeya Publications/Newspapers Ltd. in 1979 after he lost his “silver spoon.” Similarly, the “chip” too has no obsession about money-making although, learning from the shock of 1973, he has diversified his interests as chairman of several companies, including Lake House Printers and Publishers, Lake House Bookshop, L. H. Plantations, Stamford Lake, Ranweli Holiday Village, Sarathi, and Wijeya Graphics, as well as being a director of Freudenberg & Co. and R. S. Printek.
But his main interest is WNL, which he has turned into the leading newspaper group in Sri Lanka recording the highest annual turnover. It has beaten all the Sunday newspapers in the country.
Ranjith followed DRW’s traits of perseverance, courage and a high sense of public duty as the main elements of success. Like his father, Ranjith was willing to introduce the most modern methods to boost the quality and success of his newspapers. Ranjith followed his cousin Upali to add a fresh dimension to journalism in the country, breaking the conservative mold that had existed for half a century with racy and populist stories.
Like his father, Ranjith built his own newspaper-publishing house by shrewd and careful planning. When the Bandaranaike government nationalized Lake House in 1973, he patiently awaited the outcome of the legal challenge to the takeover. When the UNP defeated the hathhavula in 1977, he refused the offer to resume control of Lake House. He preferred to take compensation for losses suffered, and used the proceeds to acquire the goodwill, rights, trade names and library of the bankrupt ToC group. He subsequently started various newspapers using the names of former ToC newspapers: Irida Lankadeepa (1986) that claims a current circulation of 350,000, Sunday Times (1987) with a circulation of 330,000, Lankadeepa (1991) with a circulation of 150,000, and Daily Mirror (1999) with circulation of 25,000, which started as Midweek Mirror (1995). Other publications owned by WNL include Ada, Bilindu, Daily FT, GO: Guys Only, Hi!!, LW (Lanka Woman), Mirror Sports, Pariganaka, Sirikatha, Tamil Mirror, Tharunaya, Vijey and Wijeya.
DRW was a strict disciplinarian of the old school who followed the British tradition of journalism while his “chip” deviated from his dad’s authoritarian attitude that editors are merely paid scribes who should propagate only their master’s voice. Ranjith understood the negative consequences of disregarding the anatta (no self) concept in cyclic existence and followed the American tradition of making his loyal editors partners in promoting journalism. Thus, unlike Crowther and Hulugalle (under DRW), Ranasinghe and Ratnatunga (under Ranjith) have achieved more than a mere “fruitful partnership” with their boss. Ranjith also improved the design and layout of the Sunday Times and the Irida Lankadeepa using the Newhouse paper USA Today as the model. [My 1991 coaching session for the Lankadeepa journalists focused primarily on USA Today.] In the Sunday Times (3 June 2012) Silver Jubilee souvenir, Ranjith said: “ I, among others, believed there to be room for another newspaper to provide a forum for the expression of divergent views and their discussion. The American newspaper USA Today was a model I had envisaged, both in terms of appearance and content.”
Ranjith also had differences and similarities with his flamboyant cousin Upali who attended Cambridge with him and set up a newspaper publishing company not for moneymaking but simply because “he sensed the need for a vibrant press.” Upali Newspapers effectively dislodged the Independent Newspapers and beat the state-run daily Dinamina while getting very close to Daily News, in circulation. Thus, the Wijewardenes have re-emerged as the most successful in newspaper publishing. Although Upali disappeared in a plane crash in February 1983 his widow Lakmini, and her father Sivali Ratwatte (brother of SLFP leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike) have raised the quality of journalism through fearless criticism of political corruption with no apparent political bias and by indigenizing its English daily, the Island. WNL and UNL work in harmony as cousins. Both have withstood the threats from several other competitors–Leader Publications, Ceylon Newspapers, Rivira Media Corp., and Sumathi Newspapers–while keeping ANCL at bay.
UNL’s Divaina (156,000), which a study by Ubayasiri and Brady (2003) found to be the “most balanced of the three Sinhala dailies,” is slightly ahead of WNL’s daily Lankadeepa (150,000) and way ahead of ANCL’s Dinamina (75,000). ANCL’s Sunday Observer (175,000), and Silumina (265,000), and UNL’s Divaina Irida Sangrahaya (340,000) and Sunday Island (103,000) trail behind Wijeya group’s two weekend newspapers. However, WNL’s Daily Mirror is behind ANCL’s Daily News (88,000) and UNL’s Island (70,000).
“Thumbs up” to the Wijewardene clan for their exemplary contribution and commitment to journalism in Sri Lanka. Because American scholars speculate that print journalism as we know it will cease to exist before the mid-century, the Wijewardenes should cease to get their cues from the decadent West and look Eastwards toward fostering a new genre of journalism, which I (with two other scholars–Mark Pearson and Sugath Senarath) have identified as mindful journalism.
Post Script to the essay on the Wijewardene Clan
Ranjith Wijewardene has sent me the following clarifications on Part 2 of my three-part essay.
On “Esmondizing Lake House,” Ranjith says:
Esmond was, I think, the secretary of the Trotskyite Students Union of the Ceylon University. He came courting my sister on a bicycle. A razor sharp intellect and great resourcefulness lay behind an amiable personality. What appears as misplaced political judgment at one point of time, can be vindicated by events [that] followed.
(Again in the ‘First Past the Post’ system, it can be difficult to foresee an election result, because despite a voter majority, a party can be reduced to a meager representation in Parliament).
Ranjith corrects an inadvertent error and an omission I made in my essay, which stated that “the intermediary between Esmond and the journalists was his administrative assistant Don Paul, a sort of curmudgeon.”
Don Paul, the curmudgeon, was MD’s [managing director’s] loyal steno typist and keeper of the files. MD’s link to editors and journalists was via J.L. Fernando, chief editorial executive, and A. Arulprigasam, chief administrative officer.
Ranjith clarifies my statement that “the public demonstrations that erupted in reaction to this news [allegations of exchange control violations] caused heavy damage to the ‘morgue’ of the Lake House library collection.”
The public demo was premeditated, and we had warning that it would happen in the event of a United Front victory. We were given a squad of 12 PCs with wicker shields while there must have been at least 500 [people] massed outside. The then IG hung up on me, when I pleaded for re-enforcements. (He was under orders to stay off and expressed his regrets later).
Ranjith also has elucidated on a few points I slopped over in Part 3 of the essay.
In regard to my reference to Upali Wijewardene, Ranjith says:
Upali had no assistance from his uncles as they had all passed on by then.
Ranjith has also pointed out that I have erred when I made the blanket statement: “They [father and son] both adhered to the principle of right livelihood because they did not make unconscionable profits by promoting arms and lethal weapons, poisons, animal slaughter and cheating.” He admits:
I did have an Arms procurement agency very briefly, until a nasty accident occurred, that made me give up the agency forthwith. The monies earned were set aside for a staff emergency loan fund.
On the diversification of his investments, Ranjith elucidates:
Much of the diversification was already in place due to the far sightedness of my BIL [brother-in-law] George Gomes who separated the Lake House commercial ventures from the main newspaper business.
Commenting on “modern methods” I credited him for introducing at WNL, Ranjith confesses:
These were all the brain child of WNL General Manager and now Director Lal Jayawardena, who has been aptly described as ‘someone who can see round corners.’ Racy and populist stories were from Siri Ranasinghe and Vijitha Yapa, editors at the time.
Ranjith says that the government made “no offer to regain control of Lake House … for me to refuse.”
On the circulation figures I gave in the essay, Ranjith explains:
With no Audit Bureau of circulations, the guide that is mainly used to assess readership is LMRB’s annual survey. I believe we are ahead according to LMRB.
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