Release that grip on fake house
Thoughts from London
By Neville de Silva
No doubt the new United National Front government
has its priorities, not the least of which would be to remove the numerous
obstacles to returning the country to the rule of law.
If that means dealing with all those PA politicians and their thugs
in and out of uniform, who like Mao Zedong, believed that power came out
of a barrel of a Chinese T56, so be it.
But in the course of working out its political platform, the UNP would,
I hope, at some stage come round to taking a serious look at the functioning
of the country's mass media, particularly the so-called state controlled
While national radio and, more latterly television, such as the SLBC
and Rupavahini have always been in government hands, the Associated Newspapers
of Ceylon popularly known as Lake House and ITN were privately owned media
institutions that the government acquired.
The more important of these two, of course, is Lake House. It is now
almost 30 years since Lake House was taken over by the government in the
name of broadbasing its ownership.
Nearly three decades later, little or nothing has happened to pass the
ownership on to the public as envisaged in the legislation and each successive
government has not only clung to Lake House but also increasingly turned
it into a government propaganda machine of Goebbelsian proportions.
Under the law, the Public Trustee was mandated to redistribute the shares
of Lake House so that no single individual would own more than two per
cent of its total shares.
If the intention was real broadbasing, then this was laudable. But the
fact is that the PublicTrustee has not done what he was expected by law
to do. But that was not his fault. He could exercise his power under the
law only on the written instructions of the relevant minister.
Over the years the relevant minister has been lax. Not that he had forgotten
to do so or that he intended to do so at a later date. It was the policy
of the government not to let Lake House go, in the mistaken hope that by
using Lake House for purposes of political propaganda and government image
building, it can win elections and continue in power.
Unfortunately, it is a fact of our political life that Lake House propaganda,
under private or state ownership, has not won elections. It might have
helped or conspired in bringing down governments by dubious means, but
it has not been instrumental in keeping a government in power because its
political influence on the public at election time, was exaggerated.
However much Lake House campaigned for the ruling UNP in 1970, it could
not stem Sirima Bandaranaike's SLFP-led United Front coalition from coming
Similarly in 1977, despite the best efforts of the then powerful Janavegaya
group within Lake House, not all the journalistic pundits of that institution
could stop J. R Jayewardene's unprecedented parliamentary majority.
There was, of course, a time when the Lake House newspapers, representing
indigenous and nationalistic interests as opposed to The Times, the mouthpiece
of British plantation and commercial interests, played a significant role
before and after independence.
But in a country where the mass media have not only multiplied but represent
varied interests, the political influence of Lake House has waned tremendously
and has sapped it of the quality journalism it was known for internationally
in earlier years.
Still for all, governments hang on to Lake House as though it was their
The UNP and J.R. Jayewardene fought tooth and nail to prevent the take
over of Lake House, going to the Constitutional Court against the draft
law. "JR" as he was known, even took to the streets asking the public to
boycott Lake House newspapers.
Having promised media freedom at the 1977 election campaign, did the
UNP relinquish its hold on the institution? No, and not because JR himself
was a minor shareholder and it might have been embarrassing to do.
At the Press Foundation of Asia conference held in Colombo in 1978,
President Jayewardene was asked whether the government would de-nationalise
Lake House. "What do you want me to do?" he asked rhetorically. "Return
it to the Wijewardenes? You tell me and I'll do it." Unfortunately, nobody
in that august audience ventured to do so.
He need not have returned it to the Wijewardene's, if it was that embarrassing.
To begin with, he could have asked the relevant minister to instruct the
Public Trustee to sell off the shares. There are so many ways in which
Lake House could have been released from government stranglehold.
Instead it karate-chopped the institution by planting more political
appointees of ministers and MPs, adding to the mess that the SLFP government
had done during its seven-year term.
Having worked there for 27 years during the best of times and the worst
of times, it is hard for me to imagine that a journalistic institution
which was considered among the best in Asia, has deteriorated to what it
What happened to Lake House was that it became an employment agency.
Influence was the most important criterion.
Some who wanted to cling on to their positions would scrape the bottom
of the barrel looking for outside help. Some sought the influence of Buddhist
monks, others of politicians and still others some businessmen.
No media institution can work like that unless it has a journalistic
Two things are needed to restore Lake House journalistically to its
pristine status. Firstly the government must relinquish its hold. It can
be turned into a public institution, run by an independent and qualified
board. It can even be sold to a foreign consortium or financier with editorial
control in the hands of Sri Lankans and its top editors.
Secondly it should be a journalistic institution that can be expected
to maintain journalistic and ethical standards. This is more so because
in many countries, and that includes the UK too, quality and ethical standards
are falling as media barons fight to control the marketplace. It is true
that the newspaper is a commodity to be sold. But surely, it is much more
than a cake of soap.