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Journalism is the art of the possible

Editorial policies of a newspaper empire or even its future and destiny are dependent on the contemporary political forces that buffet them.

That fact we realised from the mid-1960s when we commenced our newspaper career. Lake House at that time was basking in glory at the fall of the powerful Sirima Bandaranaike government following the defeat of the Lake House take-over Bill. It was an unprecedented accomplishment in the history of the publishing business in any part of the world.

As a raw reporter straight from the university, I witnessed the pride of loyal senior journalists who had worked hard to save their institution. There were also the dissenters, the leftists, who remained silent but spoke in whispers.

One senior reporter, a rare Old Trinity cricketer, an LSSPer watching his happy colleagues enjoying the spoils of war remarked: ‘This carnival can’t go on. The UNP victory is not eternal. They will fall soon.”

Fall they did. The Dudley Senanayake government, after a five-year spell, was trounced in the 1970 elections and Sirima Bandaranaike, this time fortified with a 2/3rd majority, soon ‘nationalised’ Lake House showing to the world that newspapers can make or break governments but they are susceptible to political forces that buffet them.

Lake House since then has been the publishing bastion of all governments.

In 1981, when Upali Wijewardene commenced his publishing empire, we were glad to shift over, from the bastion of government commissars to an independent press. But it was not full independence we thought it would be. The word came right from the top, ‘Don’t attack the Old Man’ meaning the executive president who was running the entire show. Bashing the rest of the Cabinet was passé .That was at least a certain degree of freedom compared to the straight jacket that the House by the Lake imposed.

The Leader Newspapers, commenced by the Wickrematunga Brothers, Lal and Lasantha, totally ignored and defied the existential principle that newspapers are subjected to the political winds blowing across. Their newspapers were really out of this world. While even investigative newspapers are usually confined to one or two exposes per issue, The Sunday Leader almost all pages – at times even the sports page – included an expose.   I asked Lasantha Wickrematunge at a reception soon after his publications commenced for how long he could maintain this pace of exposures – scandals, corruptions, skullduggery, etc. He flashed his beatific smile and cracked: You just wait!

Years later, on retirement, when I joined The Leader, he recalled this incident.

Lasantha continued to do the impossible.

I described his journalism as Kamikaze journalism – going for targets irrespective of consequences, even one’s own interests and safety.

He took on the most powerful in governments, irrespective of consequences. If his facts were even slightly off the mark, wouldn’t he be in deep trouble? There could be no defamation, when it is in public interest, was the defence of Lasantha the lawyer.

He continued with his kamikaze missions rocking the establishment for years. The law couldn’t get at him but finally some thugs in uniform with automatic rifles got him while he was alone on the highway. Had he lived and continued in the same fashion it could well be that Sri Lanka might not be what it is today. Lasantha was succeeded by Frederica Jansz, an equally fearless and gutsy journalist but the winds against her were too strong and she was fortunate to be blown off course to safety. Lasantha Wickrematunge’s success and failure was his refusal to recognise that newspapers are subject to political forces buffeting them. He did not accept the fact that journalism was the art of the possible just as much what politics is supposed to be.

He considered journalism to the art of performing the impossible. As The Leader celebrates its 20th Anniversary, it is under the editorship of Shakuntala Perera who traverses a different course to Lasantha but the destination and objectives remain the same: Seeking the Truth, Unafraid and Unbowed. She perhaps realises that journalism is the art of the possible.

Gamini Weerakoon

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