16 July, 2024


Downs & Ups Of The Wijewardenes

By Shelton A. Gunaratne

Dr. Shelton A. Gunaratne

Dr. Shelton A. Gunaratne

Prairie Awards To Wijewardene Clan For Fostering Lankan Journalism: Focus on Ranjith S. Wijewardene (Part 2)

ANCL Drowns in Political Mire

MOORHEAD, MN — Metaphorically speaking, Ranjith was born with a silver spoon in his mouth into an upper middle class Sinhalese Buddhist family as the second son of Sri Lanka’s legendary newspaper baron Don Richard Wijewardene (DRW), who founded the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd. in 1926.

Ranjith had just turned 13 in 1950, when his illustrious father died at the age of 64. The trustees who took over the management of ANCL to become its editorial board after the death of its founder groomed Ranjith to follow the footsteps of his father to become the boss of Lake House.

As L. de Silva puts it, in 1947 “a new management took over Lake House, with younger family members in charge.” When the editorial board began to oversee the CDN, its long-standing editor Hulugalle resigned because he did “not like this kind of interference.” The trustees appointed Jayanta Padmanabha, an Oxford educated writer whose “work helped to raise the quality of writing in the paper.” Cecil Graham and Ernest Corea served as CDN editors when Padmanabha left Lake House after DRW’s death.

It’s remarkable that CDN had only two full-time editors–S. J. K. Crowther and H. A. J. Hulugalle–during the first three decades of the DRW “hegemony.” H. D. Jansz, who joined the Observer at the time DRW purchased it and served as its editor until 1961, was another loyal employee who unquestioningly carried out DRW’s editorial dictates. The ability to retain loyal and dedicated editors stands out as a skill that Ranjith has inherited from his father. But, as I shall show in Part 3, the tactics used by the “chip” to ensure editorial loyalty differed significantly from those used by the “old block” in the first half of the 20th century.

Ranjith Wijewardene

Ranjith Wijewardene

Although DRW and Crowther had a “fruitful partnership” for a decade, Crowther left the CDN in 1931because, as Hulugalle points out, DRW “doubtless made the mistake of not giving Crowther a financial interest in the business.” Moreover, Crowther “must have often wished that he could write to please himself and not to echo the views of another.” Thus, the “chip” had to discard the “old block’s” outdated authoritarian approach to cultivating “fruitful partnerships” with his editorial team when the “chip’s” turn came to build up the new Wijeya group from the ashes of the ToC group in the digital era.

Until the country’s independence, the CDN evolved as a national newspaper, which was well placed to stay above the partisan politics that emerged with the general election of 1947, which saw the victory of the UNP led by D.S. Senanayake in the first parliament elected under the Soulbury constitution.

In short, the 12 nidanas that condition the intensity of dukkha in the bhavacakra of ANCL took an adverse turn when two years before DRW’s death, the responsibility of managing the business fell into the hands of an eminent lawyer, L. M. D. de Silva, and to DRW’s three daughters and their spouses — Nalini and Esmond Wickremasinghe, Ranee and George Gomes, and Kusuma and Lal Gooneratne. Ranjith’s three brothers-in-law thereafter began to function as managing directors of three separate areas of the company.

These younger members of DRW’s family ruled the roost at Lake House through the ‘50s and the early ‘60s. Esmond Wickremasinghe (1920-85) whose third son Ranil is the current UNP prime minister, masterminded ANCL’s editorial policies, and Ranjith probably had very little clout in this “editorial board” until the late 1960s.

The new management even surpassed the legendary grip that DRW had on editorial policy of ANCL newspapers. DRW was actively engaged in shaping the editorial policies of the CDN from its very first issue on 3 January 1918. He assumed the role of CDN editor in the first year of its publication even though he did not write any editorials. Until he appointed Crowther, a talented writer from Batticaloa who studied for the Anglican ministry at Oxford, as the first full-time editor of CDN in 1919, DRW got his various friends “who dropped in at the office with him towards dusk” to write the editorials. DRW established a “fruitful relationship” with Crowther until mid-1931. DRW and Crowther “had afternoon tea together for 12 years… [and] discussed the topics of days and the paper’s attitude to them.” Biographer H.A J. Hulugalle, CDN’s second full-time editor until 1948, writes:

The Daily News was his [DRW’s] creation and his editor and other collaborators were expected to make their best contributions as his helpers and not as initiators or creators on their own account.

Esmondizing Lake House

The new management team followed the tradition of its founder. Esmond, in particular, got highly involved in partisan politics, and he was suspected to be a member of the UNP’s “inner cabinet.” That role lapsed when the socialist SLFP/MEP won the 1956 election, but resumed again with the marginal victory of Dudley Senanayake’s UNP at the March 1965 election following the collapse of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s coalition over a procedural wrangle related to its legislation on state control of the national press. [Incidentally, Ranjith is married to Ranjani Senanayake, a niece of Dudley Senanayake, the popular four-time prime minister who died in 1973, the year of the Lake House takeover.]

Subsequently, when the UNP returned to power in 1977, President J. R. Jayewardene used Esmond as the unofficial “foreign affairs minister.”

The Lake House directorate’s political partisanship engendered the leftist parties’ call for broad-basing ANCL’s “press monopoly.” (Historian K.M. de Silva provides a detailed account of the taming of the national press from 1960 to 1974 in the book “Studies on the Press in Sri Lanka and South Asia” edited by G. H. Peiris, and published by ICES, Kandy, in 1997.)

The new management of ANCL, however, expanded the group’s publications by adding several more periodicals. In 1953, it brought out a new afternoon Sinhalese daily, the Janatha, edited by bilingual journalist Denzil Peiris. It also started specialized periodicals like the Budusarana, the Mihira, the Navayugaya, the Sarasaviya, the Subasetha and the Tharunee.

As already mentioned, going by his later action as a “resurrected” media baron, Ranjith probably gave way to the advice of his experienced “trustees” even though he was reluctant to get drowned in partisan politics. Like his dad, he would have consulted his chief editors on the news of the day; but unlike his dad, he would have allowed his editors an equal say on editorial policy on important issues of the day.

In the 1960s, editorial recruitment was the province of Esmond, who had a pleasant personality that appealed to journalists. The intermediary between Esmond and the journalists was his administrative assistant Don Paul, a sort of curmudgeon. After I passed a general knowledge test, a panel of three — managing director Esmond Wickremasinghe, CDN editor Cecil Graham and Dinamina editor M. A. de Silva — interviewed me. Esmond impressed me as a bubbly man full of energy and enthusiasm who wanted to try out new ventures. At first, he tried me out in his economics research unit adjoining his air-conditioned office, which also accommodated his two Burgher secretaries. The journalists who worked directly under Esmond enjoyed the comforts of his office. After a few months, Esmond assigned me for training as a reporter for the Dinamina and the CDN.

Many hypothesize that the Lake House directorate’s pro-UNP policies provoked the state takeover of Lake House in 1973. The call for the takeover gathered momentum since 1 September 1969 when LSSP leader N. M. Perera alleged in parliament that the same ANCL directorate had repeatedly violated the Exchange Control Regulations causing a loss of approximately Rs. 20 million to the country’s coffers. The public demonstrations that erupted in reaction to this news caused heavy damage to the “morgue” of the Lake House library collection, and paved the way for the impressive victory of the Bandaranaike coalition (hathhavula) in May 1970 with the support of the Independent Newspapers Ltd., also known as the Sun Group, where Dhanapala had moved.

Ranjith, who took over as ANCL chairman in the early 1960s, left the editorial policies in the hands of his more experienced brothers-in-law. Therefore, I had almost no contact with him except when he joined a panel that interviewed me at the office of the U. S. cultural attaché Richard Arndt for the WPI fellowship in 1966.

As one of the Daily News reporters assigned to cover the K.D. de Silva Press Commission of 1963 appointed by the hathhavula, I learned much about the political machinations at the top echelons of the press at both the ANCL and ToC groups to get the UNP back in power after the SLFP/MEP trounced it in the 1956 election. ToC’s Lankadeepa under editor Dhanapala was one of the few group newspapers that favored S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s SLFP/MEP in 1956.

Prime Minister (Mrs.) Bandaranaike made the “broadbasing” of Lake House a major plank in her 1965 election campaign, which she lost. She used the findings of the interim and final reports of the press commission, which received wide publicity in the Lake House press (despite the refusal of the ANCL management to appear before the commission because its members were politically biased) to project the press as a reactionary capitalist tool. (I covered Bandaranaike’s 1965 campaign as a CDN reporter. More details on my five years at ANCL appear in my autobiography From Village Boy to Global Citizen: The Journey of a Journalist published in 2012 by Xlibris Corp.) She dwelt on the theme that the Lake House directorate could not account for Rs. 645,000 allocated “to safeguard the freedom of the press and the interests of the company” implying that the ANCL directors had spent that money to bribe parliamentarians to defeat the government in 1965.

Referring to the pre-1973 Lake House actions, Ranjith says, “I am not being coy, but the less said of me, the better. I share the guilt of letting the side down in the events leading up to 1973.”

Although the ANCL take-over of 1973 marked the down phase of the Wijeyawardene clan, two of the clan members–cousins Ranjith and Upali–succeeded in turning the tables around for the resurrection of the clan’s “lost empire.” Contradicting the urban legend that Upali splurged his wealth to set up his newspaper business in a hurry in 1981 to help his political ambitions, Ranjith says that Upali was “much more focused on his objectives [as] a born entrepreneur.” He says that Upali Newspapers Ltd, like Upali’s other enterprises, “was a meticulously planned streamlined operation.”

Ranjith clarifies that praise for the clan’s second-generation print media should go to Upali, who too “felt the loss of a family icon with the takeover of Lake House. He sensed the need for a vibrant Press (the only effective media at the time) and also that it could make his presence in politics more formidable.”

To understand the clan’s craving and attachment for newspapers and the resulting dukkha reflected in the becoming, birth, decay/demise, and re-becoming in the bhavacakra of cyclic existence, let me sketch the clan’s history.

DRW’s Nuclear Family

DRW and his wife Ruby Meedeniya were the parents of two sons and three daughters. The elder son Seevali, who died in 1997, founded a private business, Photo Cinex Ltd., and later joined his nephew Shan Wickremasinghe, who was also happened to be a nephew of the country’s first executive President J. R. Jayewardene, to establish ITN, Sri Lanka’s first private TV station. Perhaps because Seevali showed no interest in the ANCL, DRW bequeathed the landmark he built by the Beira Lake in the heart of Colombo to his second son, Ranjith, while at the same time letting his three daughters and their spouses also reap the economic and social benefits of his publishing “empire.”

As if to confirm the old proverb “like father, like son,” Ranjith, noticeably, had inherited the physical looks of his father. He dutifully attended St. Thomas College and proceeded to Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he earned a master’s degree in 1959. Then, he returned to Ceylon to assume the job of ANCL chairman in 1962, the year I graduated from the University of Ceylon and joined Lake House. But during my initial years at Lake House, I had only a nodding acquaintance with Ranjith who operated from an isolated boardroom on the corridor between the CDN-Dinamina and the Observer-Janatha editorial offices. Unlike his dad, Ranjith did not have any close contact with journalists or editors because he did not have the experience to impose his imprimatur on the editorial policy of the ANCL flagships. The bigwig editors of Lake House, like Graham, Corea, Tarzie Vittachi and Denzil Peiris took their editorial cues from Esmond.

Roots of Ranjith

To understand the “like father, like son” analogy, one has to get a glimpse of the history of the Wijewardene clan. Erstwhile Daily News editor (1931-50) H. A. J. Hulugalle who wrote the biography of D. R. Wijewardene in 1960, ten years after the latter’s demise, provides us a glimpse of the size and the influence of the clan:

DRW, Ranjith’s father, was born as the third male child of seven sons and two daughters procreated by timber merchant Muhandiram Tudugalage Don Philip Wijewardene of Sedawatta and Helena Weerasinghe. DRW’s father, whose ancestry goes back to King Parakramabahu VI of Kotte (1412-1467), died in 1903 at the age of 58 and was raised by his mother, a devoted Buddhist associated with the Kelaniya Vihara. The muhandiram abandoned his ancestral property in Tudugala, near Kalutara, and migrated to Sedawatta, where he made a fortune “selling timber, bricks and sand from the river” during the building boom in Colombo.

DRW’s older brothers were Don Philip “Alexander,” and Don Lewis; and his younger brothers were Don Charles, Don Edmund, Don Albert and Don Walter. DRW’s two sisters were Harriet (Mrs. Arthur Seneviratne) and Agnes Helen (Mrs. E. W. Jayewardene, the mother of former President J. R. Jayewardene).

DRW received his primary education at the Sedawatta School after which like all his brothers completed his secondary education at Saint Thomas College, Mutwal. He then went on to study law at Cambridge.

While ANCL was the brainchild of DRW, all his siblings bar Don “Alexander” and Don Albert were connected with the newspaper business in Sri Lanka. It is remarkable that DRW’s youngest brother Don Walter, who prematurely died in 1938, produced a son, Upali, who founded an unplanned newspaper-publishing house of his own, Upali Newspapers Ltd., with no assistance from any of his famous uncles simply because he had the money to do so.

*Part 3 of this essay will tell the story about my sporadic contacts with Ranjith over more than a half-century. Then, I will elucidate on the reasons why he dislikes my reference to him as a “chip off the old block,” who scratched his father’s back to become the most successful journalism entrepreneur in the late 20th century and the early 21st century by shrewdly adopting the middle path ways of Winnie the Pooh suitable for the digital era.

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