Today is May Day or Labour Day as it is called in some parts of the world. It is a day of historical significance when workers of the world express their solidarity too.
May 1 however has a different significance for me, an essentially personal meaning. It was the day on which I entered the field of journalism. On May 1 1962 I joined the staff of the “Ceylon Observer” as it was then called. So began a journey that has now entered its 50th year. In the intervening years I have often been asked whether I regretted having gone into journalism. Despite some harrowing experiences which made me wonder whether I had made the right choice, events that cannot be related here at any length, I doubt I would have abandoned the vocation.
|Neville de Silva towards 50 years as a scribe
It is almost five decades since that journey began, one that compelled me to leave Sri Lanka and live and work abroad for 20 of those years. Suffice it to say, in the words of Mark Twain, the news of my death (by shooting during the anarchic days of the late 1980s as happened to my friends Kulasiri Amaratunge and Thevis Guruge) was highly exaggerated.
But this is not the time to tell that story either, except that it eventually took me to Hong Kong. That was fortuitous. In the grave circumstances of the time, the New York Times for which I was Sri Lanka correspondent, wanted to post me to New Delhi. When I hesitated for reasons that would be revealed at some later date, over this suggestion that came from my immediate boss Barbara Crossette, NYT said it would look at a possible posting to its bureau in London after talking to their London chief Craig Whitney.
Meanwhile many concerned diplomats wanted me to leave Colombo offering me visas readily, including to the UK, Canada and Sweden. I was still not too keen on leaving and even told the Canadians that I did not like their climate, when out of the blue came an offer from the Hong Kong Standard newspaper which then knew nothing about the shooting story.
But this was some 27 years after I had started on the Observer. I would never forget that first day on the newspaper. How could I. There I was at Lake House some three weeks after leaving university and my first assignment was to attend a preview of a Russian film at the Savoy cinema, Wellawatte. The film was “Cranes are Flying” directed by Mikhail Kalatozov. After the preview and lunch at a nearby Chinese restaurant (I wonder whether it still exists) I returned to Lake House. Walking down the corridor to the Observer I found it devoid of any signs of life, just proof pages scattered on desks and the floor. I walked back and noticed a few individuals at their desks writing away briskly.
Journalism is all about visits to cinema
This I discovered was the office of the Thinakaran, the Tamil daily. On inquiry I was asked whether I was new. Yes I said. He asked me to go home and come the next day. This I decided to do. On the way home I was thinking that if journalism was all about visits to the cinema and that being the task for the day it was going to be immensely enjoyable working here. I could not have been more wrong. It was hard work, late hours, spending much time waiting for a minister to give you a few minutes and kicking your heels outside the doors of some bureaucrat who thought he had just descended from Olympus.
As a raw young journalist you would be lucky if some high-up in the political or official firmament deigned to give you the time of day. But then over the years one needs to build up a number of contacts, have to prove to be trustworthy and also accurate and impartial. Then the doors will open and the time will come when a telephone call to your contacts will suffice. But the early years are always difficult and your writing will determine whether you will be accepted to the inner circles that any journalist will hanker for.
The editor of the Observer then was Denzil Peiris, a professional to his fingertips and a hands-on editor. Of those who were on the staff when I joined only Manik de Silva, current editor of the Sunday Island, is in active journalism though H.L.D Mahindapala does still fire broadsides from Down Under.
Made words come
alive on page
The Observer staff of the time, too numerous to mention by name, was a team of superb professionals, tough, resourceful and skillful writers who made words come alive on the printed page when even the sports pages had literary merit. Any newspaper in the world would have been proud to have had them. It was indeed a privilege to have cut one’s journalistic teeth under and alongside them.
It was Denzil Peiris who recruited me to the staff having visited the Peradeniya campus on a ‘scouting’ mission. I did not know till later that it was Prof. K.N. Jayatilleka, Professor of Buddhist Philosophy who had recommended me. After a stint at the features desk writing weekly film reviews and book and theatre reviews and general features including a weekly cultural column I went to the news desk where one learnt the fine art of news reporting, never letting opinion and comment intervene in the story unlike some of what passes off as news reporting today.
My brother Mervyn was then the Features Editor of the Observer and taught me all about feature writing as did Denzil and seasoned subs/ writers such as Neville Weeraratne who went Down Under many years ago. My earliest tutor in news writing and gathering of news was Clarence Fernando, a tough- as- nails News Editor and long-time Reuter Correspondent. Bad copy or half-baked stories would end up in the receptacle by his desk or crushed into paper balls and thrown at you if you happened to be hanging around.
With PM Dudley Senanayake
A couple of years later I was sent to the news desk of the Daily News where I was to cover among other things the Food and Agriculture Ministry giving me the opportunity to revive a school time interest in agriculture. One of the great joys of the time was travelling round the country with Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake who was a storehouse of knowledge on the subject of agriculture and irrigation and from whom I learnt so much.
Gradually and with experience I was introduced to other areas of journalism with Daily News Editor Ernest Corea appointing me Lobby Correspondent to write the regular parliamentary sketch. It was somewhere around 1968 and this threw me into the whirlpool of politics and politicians. Then sometime in the first half of the 1970s I was also made Parliamentary Editor. In those days the Daily News covered parliament extensively devoting three or four pages to parliamentary proceedings and therefore to accurate reporting lest we tread on parliamentary privilege.
When the Observer was split in two, my brother Mervyn who had been Daily News Editor and editor-in-chief at Lake House but was summarily removed following the machinations of the infamous “Janavegaya” operating with the governing SLFP, became editor of the Sunday Observer and I went as News Editor.
The Sunday Observer which in the 1950s and 60s was a lively newspaper with a galaxy of talented writers and columnists, some writing under pseudonyms had become a listless, weary old Sunday paper with little merit save for the advertisements. I returned to the Daily News in 1978 as Deputy Editor and when I left for Hong Kong in mid-September 1989 I was Foreign News Editor of the Lake House group as well as Deputy Editor of the Observer.
I relate this in some detail as evidence of the systematic approach of the Lake House of old in grooming generations of journalists so that they will emerge as well-rounded professionals who will be able to handle diverse journalistic duties. Journalists were not left to rot doing the same work day in and day out. They did not have the technological facilities available to journalists today which tends to lead to lazy journalism but had to wade through thickets of newspaper clippings to do their research.
Firm foundation acquired at Lake House
It was no surprise that most of the Sri Lankan journalists who made a name for themselves abroad or served in media outlets overseas were former Lake House hands. It was this firm foundation acquired at Lake House in the various genres of journalism at the time that proved so very useful and gave confidence when I joined the Hong Kong Standard in mid-1989 as senior features writer and assigned to write editorials and a weekly column.
There was already quite a large contingent of Sri Lankan journalists on the paper. Two of them, T.M.K Samat and Gaston de Rosairo, were former Lake House colleagues while the rest were mostly from the then defunct Independent Newspaper group that published the Sun, and from the Times Group.
During the 10 years I worked in Hong Kong straddling both the British and Chinese administrations, the Hong Kong Standard had journalists from 22 different nationalities on its staff. This was a real experience and when I left Hong Kong in 1999 I was Assistant Editor, Diplomatic Editor and a political columnist of the Standard and had won two special merit awards for commentary/analysis at the annual ceremony held by the Hong Kong Journalists Association, the Foreign Correspondents Club and Amnesty International.
I moved to the UK as the London-based Europe Editor of the Hong Kong Standard. I also wrote a regular column for the Sunday Times. Later when the Standard changed hands I joined the Gemini News Service in London and also edited the Commonwealth Feature Service. In addition to working as the London Correspondent of this newspaper I was Diplomatic Editor of Asian Tribune, Contributing Editor to South Review and a journalism training consultant to the Commonwealth Press Union and the Commonwealth Foundation for which I conducted workshops on development journalism in Asia and the Pacific.
None of this would have been possible had it not been for the excellent training I had received from several experienced and skilled seniors at Lake House. The fact that several of us were selected as correspondents for prestigious foreign newspapers and agencies is surely testimony to that early training.
The writer is a senior journalist and foreign correspondent and is a serving diplomat in the Sri Lankan embassy in Thailand