For most of my colleagues at the now defunct SUN and WEEKEND newspapers during the 1970s-early 1980s, it’s hard to believe that 25 years have passed since Ranil Weerasinghe, colleague and friend, died on that fateful day on September 6, 1983.
That was indeed a bad year in the annals of the country’s history what with the bloody anti-Tamil riots, the emergence of a ruthless form of Tamil militancy, thousands of people fleeing abroad and then Ranil’s untimely death from an infection contracted during a reporting trip.
His photographer-colleague on that assignment -- Berty Mendis -- is with us today at The Sunday Times along with a crew of then SUN/WEEKEND staffers and others who joined in the mid-1980s till the newspaper group, that in many ways was the training ground for many of the top editors in the English-speaking media (print and electronic), folded up due to losses and the inability to shift to modern technology which newcomers in the field had advanced to. “Ado (or hey) Sumbaa – where’s the bloody copy,” Ranil, the SUN/WEEKEND news editor would shout across the newsroom as I walked in after my routine courts round in the morning. He would grin, laugh and shout, “Machan you didn’t get angry, no”, if I looked annoyed. I was called ‘Sam’ short for Samath in that era of journalism.
Ranil was a lovable character – buzzing with ideas (a typical ideas man whom I miss in today’s journalism arena), an infectious laugh and a team player. A top police and military affairs reporter, he somehow wrote his piece or pieces amidst the heavy workload as a desk head. He had a problem with spelling and checked the dictionary (a lesson to all journalists) and occasionally asked me (I was his deputy or senior reporter) to check his copy for spelling and grammatical errors, a rare occurrence nowadays when it is considered infra-dig for juniors to edit a senior reporter’s copy.
Oh the good times we had with Ranil, always the eating/drinking and partying type although he was a teetotaller. He was the event organizer and brought everyone together.
His beat was the police and the armed forces and no one at that time could match up to the number of scoops he was responsible for. Ranil always yearned to be out of the office, on field trips. Starting his journalism career in sports reporting at the old Daily Mirror/Times newspaper group in the 1970s, he joined the SUN as a reporter on the news desk handling the police/military beat. His range of contacts on the sports field like former Air Force chief late Air Commodore Harry Gunatillake, a rugby referee and current DIG Nimal Leuke, a police and Sri Lankan rugger player, helped him enormously to build and widen his contacts in the news field.
Yes ... those were the times when newspaper were all about ethics, values and discipline and young people joined the newspapers to make a career out of a noble profession and give of their mite to society. Gone are those days anyway and now – like it or not – new recruits are guided more by money than providing a service and being the watchdog of the people!
For many of us, Ranil represented that care-free breed of journalist who was happy-go-lucky, enjoyed what they did and to whom every story idea was exciting. The newspaper group indeed had on its roll some of the best journalists (experienced and upcoming) of that time like Rex de Silva, the editor whose mentoring was par excellence, and tough-as-nails deputy editor Iqbal Athas, again a great mentor. There are many others, too numerous to mention, who ended up as editors in national newspapers or head of TV stations along with other colleagues who have shone in the profession and continue to do so carrying with them great values, ethics and discipline wherever they work.
It was probably one of the best journalistic teams of that era and Ranil was a huge part of that success. Ranil – we all miss you. But more than anything else we still cherish those memories, sing-alongs and, of course, the shouting, screaming and laughter in the newsroom which is unfortunately absent today as computers have taken over typewriters and journalists have become machines.