PRAIRIE AWARDS FOR LANKAN JOURNALISM — Focus on Manik de Silva -Part 3
Posted on October 3rd, 2015
By Shelton A. Gunaratne
Professor of communication emeritus, MSUM, and lead author of Mindful Journalism and News Ethics in the Digital Era: A Buddhist Approach (New York: Routledge, 2015)
The manner of interaction of the Five Aggregates that conditioned the namarupa of Mervyn de Silva and Manik de Silva respectively showed marked contrasts. Mervyn showed the characteristics of a connection-oriented Tigger (spontaneous, playful, witty, fun-loving and energetic, but irresponsible and disruptive) while Manik showed the characteristics of a status-quo oriented Eeyore (who enjoys being alone, likes independent activities, and shows profundity–a synthesis of learning and insight). Since Mervyn became the boss in 1970, Manik was probably indebted to Mervyn for granting him a year’s leave of absence to take up the Harvard fellowship. I suspect that Manik was not surprised to see Mervyn’s abrupt downfall just three years later.
[Let me note in passing that I hesitate to guess how Manik might call me in relation to the four famous Disney characters–Winnie the Pooh, Rabbit, Tigger and Eeyore. I know that neither Manik nor I have succeeded in eliminating our illusion of self (atta) for we still “brag” about our two fellowships in the United States whenever the opportunity arises. We do so because we, like many other sentient beings, mistakenly believe in an immanent self.]
Despite Manik’s political connections, however, he had to wait until 1981 to become the editor of the Daily News. Four editors warmed the editor’s chair in the interim five years after Mervyn’s departure–Fred de Silva, S. Pathiravitane, B.H.S. Jayewardene and Clarence Fernando.
It was during the early 1980s when journalists first started using computers in the newsroom. Manik went on a tour of the U.S. newspapers in 1984 to look at the changes occurring in newsrooms as a result of the digital revolution. During his visit to Salt Lake City, Utah (on Feb. 13), he told The Deseret News staff writer Kathy Fahy that his Sri Lanka newspaper decided to move slowly from hot type to more modern methods of printing to prevent job loss of employees. He explained that his newspaper shifted to computer equipment in early 1980s though it was still using printing methods that some would consider “antique.” On his role as editor of a state-owned newspaper, Manik claimed that during the first three years since he became editor, the management has not interfered with the decisions of the editorial floor except on a couple of occasions when they suggested “I remove a line or two.”
Manik impressed on Fahy that the state takeover of Lake House did not result in a “stooge press.” He said, “The government has realized that if a newspaper is to retain its credibility, it must present the news fairly.” This is the journalistic guideline that Manik followed during his 15 years as editor of the Daily News. In the 2010 Hattotuwa interview, Manik explained that fairness included prompt correction of errors and not misusing the presumed power of the press to disparage adversaries.
At the time that Manik was appointed the Daily News editor, business tycoon Upali Wijeyawardene, a cousin of Ranjith who chaired Lake House until its takeover, commenced the Upali Newspapers Ltd.in 1981. Upatissa Hulugalle (Island, 9 Sept. 2001) recalls that Upali offered the editorship of the Sunday Island, to Manik, who had just assumed the then prestigious editorship of the Daily News. However, after consulting President Jayewardene, Manik decided to stick with the Daily News.
But the state of dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) conditioned by the interaction of the Five Aggregates that constituted Manik’s illusionary “self” began a move negatively in the mid-1990s. In my view, he failed to use his mind consciousness to discipline his defilements because he paid little attention to the basic truth that cyclic existence is marked by dukkha, anatta, and anicca.
He began to reveal a demeanor of “arrogance” wrought by his attachment to the “prestige” of the editorship of the Daily News. His attachment to the Daily News was a mistake. For he failed to take advantage of the opportunity that emerged when the former Lake House boss Ranjith Wijeyawardene started the Sunday Times, the reincarnation of the Sunday newspaper of the defunct Times of Ceylon newspaper group, which came out in 1987 as the flagship of the new newspaper publishing company, the Wijeya Newspapers.
Soon after, the country’s transition of power from Jayewardene to President R. Premadasa in January 1989 led to another “convulsion” at Lake House that changed the pecking order of journalists that diminished Manik’s position as the Daily News editor.
I returned to Lake House in 1991on a 10-week consultancy to assist H. L. D. Mahindapala, the editor of the Sunday Observer (1990-94) appointed by the Ranasinghe Premadasa regime. (Mahindapala, a Premadasa favorite from the 1960s, was the news editor of the Daily News at the time I left on my WPI fellowship in 1966. He had immigrated to Australia in the 1970s because of his dissatisfaction with the Lake House “convulsions.” Premadasa arranged Mahindapala to return from his exile.) The American Society of Newspaper Editors sponsored my consultancy as a “summer internship” that enabled U. S. journalism educators to refresh their practical skills.
I was unaware of the internal politics at Lake House when I arrived in Sri Lanka to take up my internship. Let me briefly cite from my autobiography, From Village Boy to Global Citizen: The Life Journey of a Journalist, Volume 1 (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2012):
“On June 4  when I again climbed the staircase at the Beira Lake entrance to enquire about my internship schedule, Mahindapala was nowhere around. He was visiting Australia. My diary entry for June 4 reads as follows:
“At Lake House, I met with ANCL Chairman Sunil Rodrigo, who said I should await the arrival of Mahindapala to make the work arrangements. He also called Manik de Silva, editor of the Daily News, who was not friendly. Thereafter, I had the opportunity to meet with several Observer journalists.”
“Not friendly” is an understatement. “Arrogant” would be a more accurate description of his demeanor. I suspect that he was expressing his resentment over his decline and Mahindapala’s rise in the Lake House hierarchy. In retrospect, I could empathize with Manik’s attitude in the light of the internal “convulsions” at Lake House. However, what he didn’t know was that I hardly knew anything about them. Manik never touched base with me during my brief “internship” at the Observer.
Meanwhile, as Manik revealed in the Hattotuwa interview, he felt his gradual marginalization at Lake House towards the mid-1990s. He said he was “kicked out” of Lake House in 1996 after 35 years of service. “I was summarily removed and made an editorial consultant,” he recalled. For one year or more, he had to sit in a room where he had “absolutely nothing to do.” He used the time to write to the foreign press as he earned more money by stringing than his editor’s salary. When Lake House “discovered” a story he filed for the Far Eastern Economic Review, they quickly accused him of misusing company stationary. “I think I was sacked. In reality, they paid me to resign,” he clarified.
When Manik left Lake House in 1996, he was pleased to accept the Upali Newspapers’ second invitation to become the editor of the Sunday Island, where he as been able to
pursue his philosophy of journalism with greater ease.
Although both of us are old codgers in our mid-70s, I retired as a professor of journalism at Minnesota in 2007 while Manik still continues as a professional journalist. In terms of “wampum,” some might consider me to be better off, but Manik might be the better off in terms of job satisfaction. I read his editorials every week and savor his memories of the debating skills of the “good people” in the parliament of the 1960s and his penchant for accuracy and error correction.
After the defeat of the LTTE in 2009, three of us expatriate journalists who are now American citizens–Thalif Deen, Philip Fernando and I–wrote a joint feature extolling the virtues of three Tamil dons who taught us at the Peradeniya campus–A. J. Wilson, “Tawney” Rajaratnam and S. Arasaratnam. Manik published it in the Sunday Island without making us feel that he was doing a favor. Thereafter, he invited me to write my memories of our Lake House days in the 1960s. The Sunday Island published them from July 5 to September 27 . The initial articles pleased him. But when I started to expand the series beyond my journalism days to write my life story, he asked me to cut off the fat and discontinued the series. From my point of view, this was another demonstration of his “arrogance.”
With no intention of disparaging him, I think Manik has failed to make a substantial contribution to transform the culture of journalism beholden to the values of the West to one that reflects mindfulness, particularly as defined in Buddhist phenomenology. To make this possible, news outlets should recruit and train journalists who understand the Buddhist Middle Path (magga)–the only personally verifiable method available for releasing dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) that is coterminous with cyclic existence (samsara). The most suitable journalists who can lead humanity along this path should bear the characteristics of the harmony-oriented Winnie the Pooh, the supreme embodiment of the Daoist ziran-wuwei (spontaneity-nonaction) way of life: sensitive, caring, warm and giving.
Unfortunately, mainstream journalism focuses on training of production-oriented journalists with the characteristics of the Rabbit–logical, systematic, organized, bossy, demanding and perfectionistic. I reckon that Ernest Corea and Mahindapala showed these characteristics.
“Thumbs up” to Manik for his 55 years of dedication to journalism. I ask him to read our book on mindful journalism (the Chinese, Sinhalese and Thai renditions of which will be available in the near future), and initiate the implementation of its principles in the newspapers of the Upali group. I rejoiced the honor bestowed on him in July 2009 as the president of the Editors Guild. I congratulate him in anticipation of his 20 years of service to Sunday Island in 2016.