Posted on March 20th, 2014

Dr.Tilak Fernando

It is interesting to note that life experiences of those who had lived abroad have appealed to many ‘old timers’ and are being rekindled by reading various occurrences of fellow Lankans connected with Ceylon at various stages.

Some of those Lankans who have undergone noteworthy incidents are eloquent in deciphering their encounters in detail, others are capable of putting them in black and white as feedback, and still there are those types who thoroughly take pleasure in reading other’s affairs and hark back to their own past happenings thus limiting such experiences unto themselves.

On the other hand, it is easier said than done to ‘save’ one’s finer detailed experiences in a human hard disc containing six ounces of grey matter inside the head, especially when brain cells do not function effectively as they used to be, when people grow older!

Many affluent professionals with numerous experiences in their life abroad are today in their retirement. Out of those, many were students abroad once upon a time. Their willingness to help by connecting their personal experiences as students and professionals in London, and how such occurrences impacted on matters closer to home, undoubtedly will inspire the readership to a greater extent when such episode are dressed in a journalistic lingo.

One such Sri Lankan who has a mine of interesting stories to relate is Sepala Munasinghe who has been feeding me recently with quite a bit of valuable and interesting stories from the past. Despite being ‘reserved’, and one who does not like publicity, I have been able to convince him with difficulty to come out with such anecdotes for the benefit of the readership. Therefore, I am extremely thankful to him for accepting my constant appeals and requests to share matters impacted closer to home in the capacity of a student as well as a professional Barrister, both in London and Sri Lanka.

London in the sixties

London in the sixties was fertile ground for the development of left wing idealism, particularly among the young. This development was given an impetus by those senior intellectuals in the UK, who through their writings and political campaigns gave leadership to that expansion. There were many causes that were advocated nationally by those leaders which struck the imagination of the young.

Sepala Munasinghe

Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was led by Earl Russell and Michael Foot. Anti-apartheid Movement by Father Trevor Huddleston and Rev. Michael Scott. Trade Union Rights were advocated by Frank Cousins and the Daily Herald, and then jointly owned by the Trade Union Congress and the Oldham Press. These campaigns were journalistically supported by Kingsley Martin (New statesman & Nation) and David Astor (Sunday Observer) and Michael Foot (Tribune).

For some undergrads it was not only the thrill of listening to lectures delivered by Prof. Holland who had written the books which the undergrads were using as reference text but also the fact the very same Professors were in front of them personally teaching them the subjects wherein they were the authorities! Prof. Holland taught them English Legal History, Cheshire Conflict of Laws and, Eifoot Law of Contract. Sepala felt it a great privilege to have that sort of opportunity. He felt humbled that someone who has had his beginnings of education in a provincial school like Maliyadeva in Kurunegala was then exposed to experiencing the very best in British Higher Education.

Students also enjoyed the thrill of selling the Tribune edited by Michael Foot in Trafalgar Square and taking part in campaigns for CND and Anti-apartheid movements. On Fridays the National Union of Students membership cards came into heavy use to purchase the Newstatesman & Nation at a discount and visit the Senate House and more meetings free.

Michael Foot being the youngest of the famous Foot family later became Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. His brother Sir Dingle Foot QC was the Barrister who headed the famous Barristers Chambers in the Temple. Sepala Munasinghe, at latter stages, when practicing as a Barrister, nearly joined those Chambers due to an introduction to Sir Dingle by Justice E.F.N. Gratiaen.

Establishment of Press Council

It was then apparent, as it is now, the thriving democracy in the UK lacked an important ingredient – that of a true Freedom of the Press. Apart from the journals referred to above all, others operating nationally, was compliant to the established order of things. Due to agitations on the part of the more discerning members of the public a Press Council was established.

However, The British Press Council lacked teeth because it could not summon witnesses before it, and could not impose meaningful sanctions on errant journalists. It was in these circumstances that TV, particularly ITV network, introduced a program titled “From the Newspapers”. It was fronted by Brian Inglis (Spectator), Kingsley Martin, JPW Mallalieu MP and made broadcasts about the news media particularly as to how the newspapers disseminated the news displaying their owners’ own agenda. The program gave it a more balanced view of the news as it should have been reported rather than to slant it suit the right wing aspirations of a few!

Sepala Munasinghe left Ceylon, despite an overwhelming majority voted for a change in the political fortunes of the country, the news media refused to recognise it. It went about its way of publishing negatives about what the administration was doing and generally hostile to the peoples’ aspirations. He found similar straits in the news media in Britain. To some extent Britain appeared to him to remedy this one-sided news management. He was impressed by the TV program and also the various journals available to some of those who wanted a more balanced view of the world.

Ceylon perspective

When Sepala left Ceylon SWRD Bandaranaike, being a product of liberal democracy, may not have entertained any thought of controlling at least one aspect of the mass news media. It was left to his wife, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, after unsuccessful attempts to nationalise one part of the Press during her first administration, to bring about taking the Lake House Group of newspapers to public ownership during her second administration.

When Sepala Munasinghe (Barrister) was a junior Counsel he spent a great deal of his time obtaining ex parte judgements in Court D in the District Court of Colombo – (either, that or starve!) On one such occasion he met Susil Moonesinghe, who then worked in Chatham House. He was active in SLFP politics. In conversation Sepala told Susil Moonesinghe about his pet project about ‘lack of real press freedom in the country and something had to be done to give ordinary people a voice in the affairs of the country through the news media’.

Sepala Munasinghe particularly mentioned the TV programs in Britain, the Press Council etc. He also had contacts to the Nation, edited by Batty Weerakone at the time, which was a journal of the left.

In Mrs. Bandaranaike’s second administration Susil Moonesinghe was appointed as Chairman, SLBC (Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation). He contacted Sepala and asked him to do a program for the SLBC, similar to the TV program in Britain, except that it was to be a radio broadcast.

The program went out in Sinhala and English. Initially, it was a welcome part of the radio schedule under Susil Moonesinghe. That cordiality did not last too long! The Lake House Group of newspapers was particularly hostile towards it. That hostility lacked objectivity, was devoid of any journalistic ethics and generally thought by those journalists as a forerunner to public ownership of the Lake House. It was no such thing!

At the request of Batty Weerakone, Sepala started writing articles to the Nation. One such article was on the British Press Council in Sri Lanka highlighting not to fall into the same trap of imitating those faults by aligning too closely to the British model! This article found its way to a Cabinet sub-committee Chaired by Pieter Keunemann, with members like Colvin R. de Silva et al, who were appointed by the Prime Minister with the task of proposing the best way to establish an effective Press Council in Sri Lanka.

In the second attempt Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike brought Lake House to public ownership. Today, people have a significant part of the Press in the country that can give a voice to the people. More importantly it can also reflect a more balanced view of those events that happen in faraway places than the one sided, managed news coverage by compliant Western sources. 

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