Lakdev Liyanagama, in Daily News, 3 January 2018, with the title A century’s fruition
The centenary that the Ceylon Daily News celebrates this year is also a hundred years where this newspaper, newspapers in Sri Lanka and indeed the media, in general, have metamorphosed several times over, serving different roles depending on the needs of the day.
A hundred years ago, in 1917, the Ceylon Daily News was born when Don Richard Wijewardene (known as ‘DR’ to all), took ownership of The Ceylonese and re-christened it the Ceylon Daily News. Wijewardene was involved in the movement to gain Independence from Britain and was not shy to use his newspaper for that purpose. In that sense, the Ceylon Daily News had an enmeshed roe in the country’s politics from its very inception.
Four years earlier, in 1913, Wijewardene had been elected secretary of the Ceylon National Association, an organisation formed for the purpose of agitating for constitutional reform and self- rule. Its President at the time was James Peiris.
In 1919, the Ceylon National Association amalgamated with the like-minded Ceylon Reform League to form the Ceylon National Congress (CNC). Working with those who agitated for the country’s independence in the CNC brought DR into contact with those who would later become political heavyweights in the lead up to Independence. These included the likes of F R Senanayake, D S Senanayake, D B Jayatilaka, E W Perera, C W W Kannangara, Patrick de S. Kularatne, H W Amarasuriya, W A de Silva, George E de Silva and Edwin Wijeyaratne.
D S Senanayake was to later leave the CNC in 1943. In1946, he formed the United National Party (UNP). Wijewardene too gravitated towards the UNP and was particularly close to the ‘father of the nation’, D S Senanayake and his son, Dudley. As a result, his newspapers were increasingly identified as ‘UNP newspapers’.
DR passed away two years after the nation gained Independence leaving the company he founded, the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (ANCL) to be run by his sons-in-law. By this time, DR’s sister Helena’s son, J R Jayewardene had also emerged as a leading figure in the UNP. Jayewardene was close to Esmond Wickremesinghe, DR’s son-in-law who for all intents and purposes ‘ran’ ANCL after DR’s demise.
Lake House group: Therefore, it surprised none that the Lake House group supported the UNP and as the country was emerging as an Independent nation, it played a significant, if slightly unabashed pro-UNP role in moulding public opinion in what was already a highly politically literate electorate.
Lake House was not alone in this. Their erstwhile rivals, Independent Newspapers Limited, or the Davasa group owned by the Gunasena family, with relatively fewer links to political families but with the dynamic D B Dhanapala at the helm, was not averse to endorsing some of the policies of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
Matters came to a head in 1964. Even then, the Lake House was identified with the UNP and the government of Sirima Bandaranaike attempted to take over Lake House by introducing legislation in Parliament. The directors of Lake House, led by Esmond Wickremesinghe, ever the shrewd strategist, worked tirelessly around the clock lobbying SLFP parliamentarians to vote against the proposed Bill.
Thirteen of them did. They included the then Deputy Leader of the SLFP, C P de Silva and Mahanama Samaraweera, father of Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera. The vote was lost by one vote and led to the fall of the SLFP dominated government. Among those who could also claim credit for this were two others who voted against the proposed Bill, S Thondaman and Speaker Hugh Fernando, the latter an SLFP parliamentarian at the time, who had the casting vote with the votes tied for and against the Bill.
If Mrs Bandaranaike was thwarted then, it didn’t stop her, nearly a decade later. After her return to power in 1970, the United Front government introduced the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (Special Provisions) Law No. 28 of 1973 to nationalise 75 percent of the ownership of ANCL and the takeover of Lake House followed soon after.
The Davasa group which by then had fallen out of favour with the Bandaranaike government was sealed a year later in 1974 under emergency regulations which were initially enacted to quell the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna led an insurrection in 1971.
With Lake House under firm government control and the Davasa group out of circulation, media freedom became a crucial issue for the UNP-led opposition which called for a boycott of Lake House newspapers. It would have been a factor- among many other issues- that led to the downfall of the SLFP led coalition in 1977, with the UNP returned to power with a record majority.
State media: The UNP lifted the restrictions on the Davasa group which resumed publication but did not reverse the nationalisation of Lake House which remains under state control to this day; forty years later under successive UNP and SLFP led governments.
Interestingly, D R Wijewardene’s son and heir, Ranjit, instead of reclaiming Lake House, has gone on to acquire the publishing rights of several other newspapers. These publications, including The Sunday Times, Daily Mirror and Lankadeepa have now established themselves as being relatively independent, publishing under the banner of Wijeya Newspapers Limited.
Nevertheless, the state media is not what it was a few decades ago. If media was restricted to one radio station, the state-run ‘Radio Ceylon’ and a few newspapers four decades ago, it has now evolved into a mammoth network of a multitude of radio stations, television networks and newspapers, a few of them still run by the state but the others all privately owned and operated.
The last decade has also seen the exponential growth of social media, powered by that ubiquitous vehicle, the internet. Now, the news is available to the public as instantly as events occur and with practically everyone possessing a ‘smartphone’ almost any incident has someone covering it with video footage.
It was not long ago that governments in this country appointed a ‘censor’ who would edit sections of news reports and leave newspaper editors tearing their hair in agony. Today, in an era driven by electronics and technology, censorship has become redundant. Instead, governments have to compete with private media organisations to get their message across to the public. Arguably, this has become the main objective of the state-owned media.
Even so, it has had to evolve with the times. Newspapers are no longer the broadsheet that one held with both hands while being sprawled in an armchair. They are now ‘read’ electronically, not only on computers but on handheld mobile phones. Therefore, a ‘web’ edition is a must for a newspaper, if it is to remain viable and it goes without saying that these editions must render ‘live’ information.
Even in countries with advanced technology and mature democracies such as Britain and Australia, the newspaper as we know it, has died. It is no longer printed on paper, nor is it delivered at the doorstep. It simply arrives in the e-mail and is accessed through a subscription. Sri Lanka, blessed with a slower paced society still honours the concept of a newspaper printed on paper but only time will tell whether this will survive as the world hurtles through the information revolution.
Increasingly competitive market: In the present day and age, can a state-owned newspaper survive, being a vehicle for what many perceive as ‘government propaganda’? Will there be a demand for such a ‘product’ in an increasingly competitive market where the axiom that ‘news is what needs to be suppressed, all the rest is advertising, holds true more than ever? Obviously not.
If so, what should government-owned newspapers- and other media too- do to remain viable? Do they cease being ‘His Master’s Voice’ as the Lake House was once famously derided? How does it strike that delicate balance?
In such an environment, government-owned newspapers- and indeed television stations- have to do more than their rivals to stay competitive. It may have the financial resources of the state to expand and innovate but it may not have the license to ‘publish and be damned’. Thus it has to tread warily, toeing that fine line which is to be objective, critical but not too offensive, all at the same time. In many ways, therefore, it is harder to be a journalist in a state media outlet now than it would have been, say, forty years ago.
The Ceylon Daily News has not only survived through all these changes, it has also evolved and prospered. The edifice that DR built, the Lake House building at the heart of the city still houses it. It still commands a substantial circulation and is the leading resource for advertisers. DR, had he been around, may recognise only the stylised masthead of the Ceylon Daily News, but it is more than likely that, surveying the changes that have been wrought in the institution that he created, he would surely commend, rather than condemn.
* Prof. Ralph Buultjens: “Esmond Wickremesinghe: The man of ideas in times of change, http://dailynews.lk/2016/09/29/features/94407
- Edwin Ariyadasa: “Centenary of A Diurnal Classic,” Daily News, 3 January 2018, http://www.dailynews.lk/2018/01/03/features/138754/centenary-diurnal-classic
- DR Wijewardene: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D._R._Wijewardena
- Documents of the Ceylon National Congress and Nationalist Politics in Ceylon 1929-1950, … http://new.povertyportal.lk/resource-library/documents-of-the-ceylon-national-congress-and-nationalist-politics-in-ceylon-1929-1950-fc2b7b8ac7b795f787487054aa20aa1e.html