Editor and Gentleman
In lieu of the 15th death of Anniversary of the former editor of The Observer, Harold Pieris, below is the reproduced appreciation written by Gamini Weerakoon that appeared in The Island on June 1 1997.
Former editor of The Observer, Harold Pieris, was a quiet, sober and well committed journalist in a profession which is known for flamboyant and even rumbustious characters both in their lifestyle and writing. Harry, as he was known in the profession, joined Lake House on graduation from the University of Peradeniya. He immediately came under the tutelage of that political dynamo Esmond Wickremsinghe who as Managing Director of Lake House was considered to be kingmaker of the times. Esmond Wickremasinghe was a press baron in the mould of Lord Beaverbrooke of Britain. Esmond played backroom politics and effectively with the nation’s most powerful press at his command. He had his own in Lake House comprising mostly of those who had graduated from Perandeniya and Harry was an important member of that team.
Harry was the News Editor of the Ceylon Daly News, the flagship of Lake House. And this post, in those times, it is said, was one of the most tough and gruelling jobs in journalism. News editors are responsible for producing the front page and other inside news pages and to do that even though he had the best team of reporters and photographers of the time at his command; it was indeed a rough assignment. Directing reporters and photographers who play by their own bohemian rules, while meeting the demands of news editing, up with the latest news, accuracy and meeting deadlines are the daily formidable challenges. His contemporaries say that the methodical Harry went about this challenging job in his own quiet way, unruffled amidst the heat, smoke and din of the Daily News room.
Harry was in Lake House at a time which is said to have been the most hectic days of the establishment. It was the time the government of Mrs. Bandaranaike was defeated by one vote over the Lake House takeover bill. And Harry was said to be at the epicentre. Rarely did he speak of those exciting days. When Esmond Wickremasinghe moved out of Lake House Harry went along with him and worked for a short spell at the Virakesari. He was soon back at Lake House, this time as the Chief Administrative officer. This once again was a tough assignment. The CAO in Lake House in those days was the conduit to the Chairman. He had to approve various claims made by journalists and look after the general administration of the editorial departments as well, editors being freed of administrative work. Harry did his job fairly and squarely and it was only when he moved over as the Editor of the daily Observer as well as the Sunday Observer that his fairness as the CAO was appreciated.
As editor of the Observer he went about his duties in his usual meticulous way. He proof read practically every page and on Saturdays was there till the Sunday Observer went to bed around midnight. He built up a network of Sri Lankan correspondents- mainly ex Lake House journalists settled abroad and also encouraged middle ranking and junior journalists to venture into new fields.
Despite all his meticulous ways as an editor, Harry landed himself in one of the biggest controversies in journalism when he found himself in the well of the parliament chamber with his associate editor Mr. Philip Cooray on a charge of breach of parliamentary privilege.
A sub editor mixed up the caption of Jane Fonda in a sailing boat with that of the then Foreign Minister A. C. S. Hameed engaged in some other activity and Mr. Hameed claimed it was a breach of privilege. Those in Lake House at the time were well aware of the political skulduggery that went behind it and how the spineless management stood still while those two journalists were made scapegoats. Harry took the beating he got without a murmur and continued to edit the paper for many more years.
His was a time when Lake House had a surfeit of flamboyance characters such as Tarzie Vittachi, Clarence Fernando, Mervyn de Silva, Ernest Corea, Ira Amarasekara and D. B. Wettasinghe to name a few of the outstanding seniors. Among this crowd was Harry, the sober teetotaller, dressed in immaculate white and carrying on his gentle manner. Harry will be remembered by his colleagues as a gentleman and a dedicated professional.