The last gentleman in journalism
Harold Pieris – Editor, Observer 1977 to 1989
Harold Pieris was as solid as the pillars of Lake House. Although big-made and bulky, Harry's strength was that of a gentle giant. His presence was a comforting one, for, although he worked behind the scenes, the skill he displayed in every field of journalism and newspaper administration made him as durable as the elegant pillars on which D.R. Wijewardene constructed his edifice.
When Harry joined Lake House, the old patriarch was gone but something of his benign avatar must have touched the future Chief Administrative Officer of the Editorial Department. For, although he started off as a journalist on the 'Daily News', Harry was for long years the chief executive of the editorial department ruling over a vast sub-kingdom of the Lake House empire. He was a close associate and confidant of Esmond Wickremesinghe, that political wizard and eminence grise of the establishment who established Lake House as the powerful tool of UNP propaganda.
An old Josephian, Harry joined the 'Daily News' as a sub-editor after graduating from the University of Ceylon. He also served the 'Daily News' as its News Editor but when I got to know him in the mid seventies as a cub reporter, he was the Chief Administrative Officer or CAO occupying the room next to the Chairman. In his long-sleeved shirts and baggy trousers, Harry was the embodiment of propriety. In him was the wisdom of the ages and he was the repository of ancient knowledge and newspaper folk lore.
He was the first Lake House man I met when I joined in May 1975. After handing me my letter of appointment, he dispatched me with a peon to meet the Editor of the 'Observer' W. Lionel Fernando who in turn handed me over to his Deputy Editor Philip Fernando (now domiciled in California) and the News Editor, the late Carlton Seneviratne.
Our paths crossed again when after the General Election of 1977 which was preceded by a strike at Lake House he was appointed as the Editor of the 'Observer'. He occupied that chair for 12 years and edited the paper during the entire J.R. Jayewardene Presidency.
This was no small achievement, for, on the other side of the editorial corridor, successive Editors of the 'Daily News' were finding that the coveted editorial chair of the Lake House flagship was becoming warmer and warmer to sit on. If Harry chose to write his memoirs that would have been quite revealing for as the closest Lake House associate of Esmond Wickremesinghe he was privy to all the manoeuvrings and Byzantine intrigues which were associated with Lake House in its capacity as a political king-maker, always an inflated notion but an illusion which the old Lake House loved to cling to. One of the most interesting periods in this respect was the mid-sixties when Esmond Wickremesinghe began a Sinhala newspaper 'Udaya' printed on the presses of Express Newspapers, the publishers of the 'Virakesari.'
The principal share-holders were Wickremesinghe himself, Dudley Senanayake and J.R. Jayewardene, the Prime Minister and Minister of State respectively at the time.
Harry was the handpicked Managing Director of the company which also produced a science newspaper in Sinhala. 'Udaya' was an intriguing project which brought a refreshing new whiff to the respectable mainstream Sinhala journalism of the day. The idea was to launch an anti-establishment newspaper suitably critical of the UNP Government of the day for it was perceived that the mainstream press was uniformly respectful towards and supportive of the Government. It was characteristic of Wickremesinghe that he should have started such a venture with the two most powerful men in the country at the time as principal shareholders.
'Udaya' was something of an enfant terrible of the times. Edited by Philip Fernando, it had some of the most colourful former Lake House writers such as Tissa Gunatilleke and the first Editor of the 'Aththa' Richard Wijesiri on its staff. Chintana Jayasena, that lovable imp who later went on to edit his own paper 'Columa', the Sri Lankan version of 'Private Eye' cut his teeth there.
Although his life was full of rich political experiences, Harry rarely spoke of them. He was a conservative, very proper man, a devout Catholic and a staunch Rotarian who organized every year the Interschool Shakespearean Drama Festival for Rotary. In fact, his last appearance in print was to pay a memorial tribute to old Lake House colleague Bonnie Fernando who was for many years one of its judges.
It was difficult to penetrate Harry's imperturbable mask but I feel that behind it was a man who felt deeply, although he never articulated his feelings. Certainly, he had a ringside view of political intrigue and skullduggery but he was never a cynical participant in them. If at all, he saw it as his duty to play his part.
Harry's finest hour was in 1978 when he figured in the now-famous breach of privilege case when he and Associate Editor Philip Coorey became the only journalists to be brought to the Bar of Parliament and tried by Parliament sitting as a court for the first time.
This is how the 'Observer' in its editorial of May 29 (the day of his burial) described the episode headlined: Harold Pieris in Parliament.
'Harold Pieris, the former Editor of this newspaper whose burial will take place at the General Cemetery, Kanatte this afternoon, had already reserved for himself a niche in the political history of Sri Lanka albeit by accident. As the Editor of the Observer in 1978, he along with Associate Editor Philip Coorey became the only journalists to be tried for a breach of privilege of Parliament by the entire House sitting as a court.
'The manner of his trial was a manifestation of the bizarre manoeuvring of the parliamentary system by the UNP Government of President J.R. Jayewardene which contributed no little towards undermining the people's faith in the democratic political system. The fact that this trial took place on the eve of Mr. Jayewardene assuming office as Executive President was no accident. It was a signal to the entire mass media that the Government intended to be tough with it.
'As it was there was hardly any need for such macho exhibitionism. The press was fulsome in its support of the newly-installed Jayewardene Government. There were no voices of dissent except for the Aththa edited with his usual panache by that maestro of Sinhala journalism, the late B.A. Siriwardene. Yet the Government felt it necessary to beef up the Parliamentary Powers and Privileges Act and the fact that its first victim was an Editor of the government owned Lake House was typical of the cruel cynicism of the regime.
'No piece of theatricals could have been more crudely contrived to advertise the muscle power of the regime. The day after the new Act was passed the Minister of Foreign Affairs A.C.S. Hameed got up in Parliament to complain the Observer had been guilty of a breach of privilege. The Minister said that the paper had carried a photograph of Jane Fonda and a companion on board a pleasure cruiser with the caption that Mr. Hameed was inspecting an industrial complex in South Korea. The correct photograph had appeared on the same page saying that it was Jane Fonda.
'Mr. Hameed's contention was that since he had to travel a great deal as the Foreign Minister this mix-up of captions constituted a breach of his parliamentary privileges presumably because the less knowledgeable citizens of the world might associate the Minister with Ms. Fonda.
'Pieris and Coorey were summoned before the Bar of the House the same afternoon. Lake House had instructed them to plead guilty although Pieris was not on duty that day and as Acting Editor Coorey had taken immediate steps to withdraw the papers once the mistake was detected (although some had gone into the streets before) and correct the mistakes in the next edition. An apology had been carried the next day.
What followed was an unprecedented spectacle in the history of Sri Lanka's Parliament. Member after member of the UNP parliamentary group got up to cross-examine Pieris and Coorey who were like the hapless Roman men thrown to the lions. It was finally left to the Leader of the Opposition A. Amirthalingam to interject in exasperation, "Let us put a stop to this. We are like little children trying on new clothes."
What impressed the observers of Parliament that day was the quiet dignity and absolute unruffled calm with which Harold Pieris faced his tormentors. Dressed in a white suit he sat calmly at the bar of the House answering all questions quietly.
By the dignity of his demeanor and the sobriety that was always the hallmark of the man he exposed the charade into which he had been dragged accidentally but with diabolical intent.
Although the most peaceful of men, his fighting qualities asserted themselves again in 1989 when he found the climate at Lake House more and more stifling.
True, Lake House had been administered as a Government-controlled newspaper from 1973 but by now the heavy hand of crude political interference and gross intervention was becoming unbearable. That was when Harry resigned with dignity.
Harold Pieris perhaps was the last gentleman in journalism. But, being a gentleman carries its own perils and pitfalls. He was sometimes over cautious, too much of a conservative. But he had his heart in the correct place.
He did not think it worthwhile to hit his head against a brick wall but he always lived by his own lights.
Highly duty-conscious his death brings to an irrevocable end and rings down the curtain on the old Wijewardene-Wickremesinghe Lake House with all its journalistic virtues and political blemishes.
By Ajith Samaranayake,
This tribute published in The Sunday Observer of June 01, 1997, is being reproduced to mark Harold Pieris’ 10th death
anniversary which falls today.