Lanka’s greatest press baron | Daily News


 

Lanka’s greatest press baron

His was a more sedate era. Given the state of communications at the time, even when world wars raged, the violence was relatively distant from our tranquil shores. Poverty and under-development were afflictions but population pressures, social competition, were less burdensome and engendered less corruption and political treachery.

In those days of colonial dominion, a scion of a wealthy, industrial clan could quietly slip into his mercantile inheritance after a suitable grooming to match elite expectations. Don Richard Wijewardene did just that in the early decades of the last Century, but he did not stop at that.

On his return to the island after a suitably aristocratic education at the University of Cambridge, UK, D. R. Wijewardene could have remained a successful member of the expanding Sri Lankan capitalist class, content to simply enjoy his mercantilist and social prominence. After all, he, along with his equally pampered siblings, were part of a network of wealthy businesses owned and managed by prominent, interlinked landed families descended from strands of medieval Sri Lankan royalty and aristocracy.

Instead, he strove to express himself and actualise his ideals of national freedom and equality in the emerging world community of nations.

And it is for his quiet accomplishments on the stage of national affairs, including his creation of the country’s biggest and, culturally, most influential newspaper establishment, that Wijewardene is lauded and remembered as a hero of modern Sri Lanka. Today we mark the seventieth anniversary of the passing of D. R. Wijewardene, the founder the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (ANCL), to which the Daily News belongs.

The newspaper group that he built up was not simply a business venture but a project that contributed to the maturing of the anti-colonial struggle. Under Wijewardene’s able management, the publications of the ANCL or ‘Lake House’ as it is popularly known, enabled a critical injection of public discourse that nurtured cultural identity and nationalist sentiment as our island society geared up in its struggle for freedom from British colonial rule.

The Wijewardene wealth and mercantilist managerial capacities enabled the marshalling of some of the country’s most brilliant intellectual and literary talents for the anti-colonial struggle. This deployment of successive generations of our intellectual cream in a massive media industry endeavour has had far-reaching outcomes down the years long after the now legendary founder’s passing.

ANCL publications still bask in the past glory of such literary and intellectual talent as Martin Wickramasinghe, Esmond Wickremesinghe and H. A. J. Hulugalle, among others.

With the early flourishing of Lake House at the time the world’s newspaper industry was in heyday, Wijewardene became the equivalent of the Fleet Street ‘press baron’ in yet colonised Sri Lanka.

True to his national vision, Wijewardene established a media conglomerate that unified all three language streams. By the early decades of the 20th Century, the ANCL had already built up a stable of successful Sinhala, Tamil and English language dailies, weeklies and other periodicals, headed by the Daily News (originally Ceylon Daily News), Dinamina and Thinakaran.

After some of the smaller trilingual news publishing houses faded away, the ANCL remains the leading trilingual press establishment and the single largest newspaper and printing enterprise in Sri Lanka.

Under his able management, the Wijewardene business empire expanded, with the ANCL being just one of its many enterprises. D. R. Wijewardene’s legacy has passed on to his children and, rather than being deterred by the nationalisation of the original newspaper house, the ANCL, some of them have gone on to build parallel and rival newspaper conglomerates.

Wijewardene, the press baron and freedom fighter, passed on before some of the biggest challenges in centuries beset his island home – internal war, ethnic rivalry, the tsunami disaster and now, the COVID-19 pandemic. The media mogul that he was would have certainly appreciated the profound role that mass communications plays amid these catastrophes.

In his time, Wijewardene ensured that his giant newspaper conglomerate contributed toward a suitably modern nationalism and modernist cultural identity during the late colonial and pioneering post-colonial eras. Today, he would surely want his publications to contribute toward constructive social discourses that would mitigate divisive ethnic tensions on the one hand and, on the other, mould social discipline to meet the challenges of pandemics, climate change and natural disasters.

Inspired as he was by modernist ideals of social equality and rights, Wijewardene would also appreciate today’s revolution of post-modern communications. He would now be impressed by the upturning of the centralised control of the traditional mass media and rise of citizen mass communicators, thanks to new digital information hardware and software technology and new media platforms such as social media.

He would surely want those same ideals and best practices of his media ventures to be sustained in the newly emerging cyber-communications world.

Wijewardene passed away on 13 June 1950, aged 64. Today, this son of Mother Lanka remains a great personality to be emulated by an aspiring new generation of journalists and citizens.


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