By Shelton A. Gunaratne –
Prairie Awards to Wijewardene Clan for Fostering Lankan Journalism; Focus on Ranjith S. Wijewardene (Part 1)
A ‘Chip’ Off the ‘Old Block’
Am not I a child of the same Adam…
a chip of the same block, with him?
— Bishop (of Lincoln) Robert Sanderson’s Sermons (1621)
[Note: In this essay, I use this old saying “a chip of the same block” to mean someone who resembles his/her parent, especially in character. In Buddhist thinking, however, no namarupa can be identical because of bhava (becoming) that engenders the three marks of cyclic existence: anatta (no selfness), anicca (inconstancy) and dukkha (unsatisfactoriness).]
MOORHEAD, MN — Although Ranjith Sujiva Wijewardene, 78 (b. 30 June 1937), is only a couple years older than I, the dynamics of the Five Aggregates that make up him and me, which the Buddhist theory of paticcasamuppada (dependent co-arising) says conditioned our respective state of dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) in our current bhavacakra (wheel of becoming), invariably worked out in his favor. The karma (intentional action) etched into his sankhara (dispositions) aggregate apparently had a great impact in shaping his namarupa by scuttling many of the defilements that afflict most of the hoi polloi.
The proverb “like father, like son” fits well with Ranjith’s obsession with newspaper business. While his father Don Richard Wijewardene (DRW) dominated Lanka’s journalism and newspaper publishing industry in the first half of the 20th century, Ranjith and his cousin Upali Wijewardene (1938-1983), son of Don Walter, the youngest brother of DRW, dominated the island’s newspaper scene in the last two decades of the same century with the launching of two successful publishing houses to compete with the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd. (ANCL), the venerable publishing company that DRW had meticulously built up, only to be taken over by the state in 1973 as political vengeance.
In retrospect, however, from Ranjith’s current perspective, “The takeover was not all political vengeance. Revenge must have been sweet, but there was much cold calculation between 70 and 73 as to who would control ANCL eventually. This contention kept the wolves from the door, until the Dudley Senanayake funeral in April 73.”
These three companies (ANCL, Upali Newspapers Ltd. and Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.) reflect the indisputable immersion of the Wijewardene clan in fostering Lankan print journalism. The three marks of cyclic existence are clearly discernible in the history of newspapers and journalism. No newspaper can withstand dukkha because everything in existence has to go through the process of becoming, old age-death and re-becoming. The styles of journalism also go through the same process. We cannot predict with any certainty what kind of news outlets and news styles will dominate the local journalism scene by the mid-century. Thus, we have to concede that the Wijewardene clan has so far “succeeded” in newspaper publishing by adjusting their products to suit the ongoing social and political changes.
Based on the foregoing materialistic reasoning, I offer this month’s PRAIRIE ROSES award to the Wijewardene clan for its unsurpassed service to foster journalism on the island for more than a century from 1914 when DRW in collaboration with his younger brother Don Charles (DCW) purchased the goodwill and name of the influential Sinhalese newspaper Dinamina that H. S. Perera had founded in1908. It was financially doddering upon Perera’s death in 1914, just a couple years after DRW returned from Cambridge, where he studied law. DRW was determined to found a newspaper-publishing house that could canvass for Ceylon’s independence.
When he officially formed his newspaper publishing business as the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd. (ANCL) in 1926, Dinamina became his first buyout on the way to becoming a media baron. It became ANCL’s flagship Sinhalese language newspaper, which was able to up its circulation to 70,000 copies. Its formidable dominance remained unchallenged until the country’s independence in 1948, when D. B. Dhanapala (1905-71), a Tissamaharama-born journalistic genius educated in Allahabad, joined the rival Times of Ceylon (ToC) group to unleash the innovative Sinhalese daily Lankadeepa and its Sunday issue Irida Lankadeepa. (Dhanapala who defied the ToC’s policy of pro-UNP partisanship quit the editorship of Lankadeepa in1960 to become the chief editor of the now defunct Dawasa and Rividina, the Sinhala flagships of the new Independent Newspapers (Sun) group started by Sepala Gunasena in 1960. Dhanapala died in 1971 at age 66. Although the new company started with SLFP’s blessings, it did not support the press control measures of the left-of-center Bandaranaike coalition’s 1965 election campaign. The Bandaranaike coalition sealed the Independent Newspapers Ltd. on 20 March 1974 under Emergency Regulations resulting in the group’s virtual demise after 13 years. Dissensions in the ownership and mismanagement killed the Independent/Sun group in 1990.)
Although it is hard to say whether DRW modeled himself on British newspaper barons like Northcliffe and Beaverbrook, he certainly adopted the strategies they used to weed out competition by purchasing their trade names, goodwill, advertising base, and plants. However, DRW’s Buddhist background enabled him to discipline his dispositions (sankhara) aggregate to follow the middle path (magga). His was a noble intention to set up a nationalist publishing house commanding the respect of the colonial administration, which favored the two oldest English language newspapers in Ceylon set up by the British–the Times of Ceylon (founded in 1846) and the Observer (founded in 1834).
The competition included two other daily newspapers: the Ceylon Morning Leader (owned by the family of W. A. de Silva, a Sinhalese novelist, with J. L. C. Rodrigo as its last editor who followed Armand de Souza, the man who started it as the organ of the Planters Association) and the Ceylon Independent (run by Sir Hector van Cuylenberg as the voice of the Burgher community’s representation in the Legislative Council). In 1914, Ponnambalam Ramanathan (later Sir) launched another daily, the Ceylonese, to promote his candidature for the educated Ceylonese seat in the Legislative Council against H. Marcus Fernando, who had the backing of the Morning Leader. But the group supporting Ramanathan did not know how to run a newspaper. DRW, who knew that in the newspaper business money alone could not buy success, found the opportunity he was looking for in 1918, when he acquired the “goodwill and plant” of the bankrupt newspaper, the Ceylonese, “with a disappearing circulation” of about 2,000 for the bargain price of Rs. 21,000. He let the Ceylonese go through its decay and death (jaramarana), but used its old plant at Tichborne Hall in Maradana to facilitate its re-becoming (punarbhava) as the Ceylon Daily News (CDN).
Biographer H. A J. Hulugalle, the longtime CDN editor from 1931-1948, asserts that DRW “in due course bought the Independent, and put the Morning Leader out of business” between 1928-32. DRW made the Daily News a mass circulation newspaper of more than 55,000 copies by drastically reducing its price and improving its editorial matter and advertising revenue. (Its estimated current circulation is 88,000.)
Originally, both the Dinamina and the Daily News were housed at the unsatisfactory Tichborne Hall facility in Maradana until 1923, when DRW “took the bold step of making a bid for the Ceylon Observer,” which had its office and plant on Baillie Street in Fort. The Ferguson dynasty had passed on the Colombo Observer to a syndicate headed by the European Association of Ceylon, which agreed to accept DRW’s bid for Rs. 100,000 with Rs. 30,000 borrowed from DRW’s older brother Don Lewis (DLW). He changed the name of the country’s oldest newspaper from Colombo Observer to Ceylon Observer, and moved the editorial and administrative offices of the CDN and Dinamina to the building he rented next to the Observer. In 1928, he started a Sunday edition of the Observer; and in 1930 a Sunday Sinhalese newspaper, the Silumina (with an estimated current circulation of 265,000). In 1932, he added a Tamil newspaper, the Thinakaran, and in 1934 its Tamil Sunday edition.
These astute moves made DRW the most successful newspaper baron in Ceylon with only the ToC as his main competitor. Hulugalle wrote, “Before he was fifty, D. R. Wijewardene had established several flourishing newspapers, built up a great business and influenced the course of the island’s history. Perseverance, courage and a high sense of public duty were the main elements of his success.”
Following the successes of all his acquisitions, DRW “began making plans to build a palazzo for his newspapers” on the present site of Lake House leased from the Government “on very advantageous terms.” He shifted all the personnel and equipment of ANCL to Lake House by October 1929. He owned Rs. 600,000 worth of shares in ANCL while other members of the Wijewardene clan owned Rs. 100,000 worth of shares. Another younger brother of DRW, Don Edmund (DEW), a skillful obstetrician, took control of the financial affairs of the company.
However, DRW’s success in establishing his newspaper “empire” was not driven by his lust (tanha) for making unconscionable profits. Unlike the Australian media baron Rupert Murdoch who violated the moral/ethical (sila) principles of the middle path (magga) to make a fast buck, DRW ploughed back most of his earnings to strengthen the ANCL to fulfill the needs of all of the nation’s ethnic groups to free themselves from the colonial yoke.
Ranjith acted very much like his father when he established the Wijeya Publications/ Newspapers in 1979 after the Lake House Law of 1973 deprived him of his of ANCL ownership, the “silver spoon” he inherited.
“I was so fed up with newspapers after 1973, that a return to publishing in 1979 was [mainly] for periodicals and magazines,” he told me in recent correspondence. But the desire to continue his father’s immersion in fostering the country’s print press drew him back to newspaper business when the ideal opportunity arose in the mid-1980s.
“When it came to newspapers again, I wasn’t very quick at ‘grabbing the opportunity.’ I sort of drifted into it (with diffidence and trepidation), via a series of fortuitous circumstances. Kammic volition? Could be.”
By then, he had learned the hazards of depending on a mega newspaper business alone.
The opportunity he was seeking arose when the defiant ToC group, which DRW failed to conquer during his lifetime, when the state took over the ToC under the Business Acquisitions Act following “boardroom battles” after the Sangarapillai Trust sold its 40 percent shareholding. As his dad would have done under similar circumstances, Ranjith purchased the titles and the library of the defunct ToC when the UNP returned to power in 1977 under J. R. Jayewardene (Ranjith’s cousin and son of Agnes Helen, one of DRW’s two sisters).
This was a shrewd move because it enabled Ranjith to obviate the massive cost of introducing new titles to compete with the established titles of ANCL, the tottering Independent Newspapers (Sun) Ltd, and the new Upali Newspapers Ltd started by his flamboyant cousin as a political tool rather than a profit-making commercial venture, and re-enter the newspaper business.
“Success in the business was due to my good fortune in a dedicated staff of some exceptional people. They were not handpicked through some special intuition of mine, but they happened to be there,” Ranjith revealed.
(Part 2 of this essay will tell the story of the conversion of Lake House into a political institution, the “Esmondsization” of Lake House after the death of its founder, my connections with Lake House, and the who’s who of the Wijewardene clan and their political clout.)
*Professor of communication emeritus, MSUM, and lead author of Gunaratne, S. A., Pearson, M., & Senarath, S. (Eds.). (2015). Mindful Journalism and News Ethics in the Digital Era: A Buddhist Approach. New York & London: Routledge.