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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2678

Media’s Vanishing Breed: Royalty with a Common Touch

Sunday Discourse by Philip Fernando in LA

As Sri Lanka celebrates sixty years of independence, it is good to reminisce about the media moguls of yesteryear, who kept sentry and watched the years pass as if their lives depended on that. These were a bunch of voluptuous thoroughbreds hounding for that story to tell. While words like "icon" and "guru" inevitably were used to pay tribute to these folks, their stature may have had as much to do with sheer consistency and dependability as with whatever snappy phrases or dazzling insights they imparted. The newspaper readers got the whole notion of having a friend or a relationship of somebody translating events to them in what you consider common-sense vernacular. A wag once noted: ‘they are like royalty but with a common touch."

Endless list of names came to mind immediately: Lionel Fernando, Cecil Graham, Denzil, Peiris, Clarence Fernando, Mervyn de Silva, Harold Peiris, and D B Dhanapala, Reggie Michael, Bonnie Fernando and many more. Some were veteran newsmakers who pounded the beat as no one else’s business, while others were seasoned trench warmers waiting for the news to break.

To the anxious “ground troopers”, their voices were filling and reassuring, the communications equivalent of deviled potatoes and liver served at the Press Club by the master chef Simeon (during my time). The trio often spoke to their regiments in the stick-to-the-ribs, common sense argot of the infamous hard-nosed chettiars of Sea Street in Pettah, even if they originally hailed from more salubrious climes. They had got transplanted to some tropical oasis called the media, be it, Times, Sun, Island or Lake House.

The headlines that rolled out of the press were legendary. Once, Lionel scooped the budget proposals before the budget day and got into hot waters with the Minister of Finance, late J. R. Jayewardene. Another time, Clarence phoned in the outcome of Indo-Lanka talks from New Delhi, more revealing than what the participants thought they knew. Harry would check and double check a story until it got fried like a piece of sautéed chicken in a heavily greased pan.

Ernest was easily the diplomat of Editors to preside over editorial matters of a humongous nature. His unerring clarity shone through during those deliberations. All editors had a team of corroborators called sub-editors, and re-writers. They came in rapid succession vying for greater laurels, Willie de Alwis, Chris Gooneratne, B. S. de Silva, Stanley Wickremasooriya, Keerthi Abeysekere, Nemsiri Muthucumara, Joe Segera, and Philip Coorey. Vijitha Yapa and Ajith Samaranayake-last three were editors later. Some are still in the saddle: Thalif Deen, Shelton Guneratne, Neville de Silva, T Sivaprakasan, Nimal Fernando, K T Rajasingham, H L D Mahindapala and Walter Jayawaedhana (all domiciled abroad), Gamini Weerakoon, Nalin Fernando and D C Ranatunga.

Many skilled professionals adorned the features desks. Personalities like Vijitha Fernando (award winning writer), Roshan Peiris, Mallika Wanigasundera, Emmanual Candappa, Rajitha Weerakoon, Nihal Ratnayake, Gaston de Rosario, and Neville Weeraratna, who were some of the best features wizards of my time.

Among the sub editors, some of them legendary, many names came to mind: N. Vanderstraaten, Neville de La Motte, Willie Silva, Soujah, Thawfeek, Canaks, Bala, Hugh Abeyratne, “Gompa” Gunatilake, Clarence Perera, Yogarani Thevadasan, Errol de Silva, Anton Weerasinghe, Dennis Fernando, Nimal Fernando, and Ian Jayasinghe, just to name a few, who earned their laurels with ease.

Mervyn de Silva was the suave news features guru and the doyen of newspaper columnists, while Bonnie was the news–eyed hawk who commanded respect for rare new analysis penned with consummate skill. Equally illustrious were stalwarts like legendary D. B. Dhanapala founder editor Lankadeepa, Fred de Silva, and Reggie Michael from the Times Group of Newspapers.

These communicators built longevity that was a more stable, paternalistic, homogenous structure of newspaper readership, identified for their careers with single teams and single newspapers, sometimes with sports or feature sections. By comparison, in today's news media culture of churn, a familiar face may be gone overnight.

The turnover of reputed professionals seemed much faster now. We can hardly keep track of them. Back in the days before mega-mass communication, it took a longer time to build up authority figures. Today many churned out the same stuff in a free-for all, sometimes, out for their own aggrandizement.

Another thing that anchored these vanishing styles and personalities was a sense of place, an indelible identity that stuck with them even as they went on to establish wider reputations. They never lost their inherent folksiness and always chased the story come rain or shine. Their association with a particular level of excellence gave them access to a loyal built-in audience in a way that was very different from the fleeting intimacy garnered by the free-floating, everywhere-but-nowhere divas of today. They had a kind of a franchise on the business. There was no competition. Watching them at close range was a truly exhilarating experience.

By comparison, in today's media culture of churn, faces appeared and disappeared frequently. A star news hound or trendy columnist of national stature could be at the front of next year’s unemployment line. Celebrity turnover swelled during the past few decades. We can hardly keep track of their rise and fall. Authority figures took longer to build.

The sports writers and newsmen were another special breed. Some of them had encyclopedic knowledge of the sports they learnt to write about. Among the best in the field were Christie Seneviratne, Carlton Seneviratne (later distinguished himself as a News Editor Observer), and T. M. K. Samath, A. C. de Silva, Gem Garner, Eustace Rulach (later became Features editor) and, Bertie Wijesinghe (All Ceylon cricketer), once again, just a few that came to mind.

This article would not be complete without writing about a group of people, by no means authoritative, yet, who went about their business with a great deal of professionalism. I am referring to the staff photographers who had an equally daunting task like their counterparts, the news hounds, to bring the news to the people every day. We had great photographers like Rienzie Wijeratne, W. Piyadasa, Hector Weeraratne, Neal Moses, Wally Perera, and Chandra Weerawardene, and just to mention the few that came to mind immediately. L. E. Samararatne is still one of the best in the field, they truly earned their living by sheer hard work. They had only a few fleeting moment to capture the passing scene and then rushed back to office and the dark room. The entire news staff awaited that photo. The story is ruined if they had missed that shot. They rarely missed.

My news colleagues of the 1961 class, undoubtedly, the best among the greats, Manik de Silva, T. M. Deen, T. Sivaprakasan, congenial Balasingham and Shelton Gunaratna would vouch to a man the veracity of what I am about to state. The photographers were our comrades in arms. They gave flesh and blood to a skeleton about to be built by the news and features staff. Without their effort the paper would be drab and virtually unfit to print. Photographers always added flesh and blood to a story.

Philip Fernando is the former Deputy Editor of the Sunday Observer

- Asian Tribune -

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