Patriot and press baron: His greatness was beyond comprehension

Feb. 23 marks the 116th birth anniversary of D.R. Wijewardene
By Martin Wickremasinghe

The passing away of D.R. Wijewardene is the passing away of a patriot and a great man. Some may ask why I regard him as a patriot. His devotion to his country is evident in deeds not in words. He was a patriot in action, not in speech. The service he rendered to his country and his people must be determined not by searching for what he said, but by searching for what he did.

Wijewardene is one of Ceylon's great men of this era. There are many yardsticks by which to measure greatness. By these yardsticks not only those whose life styles are similar but other extra-ordinary persons with different backgrounds may take their place among the great. The duration of wealth and service on behalf of others may be utilized to measure the greatness of individuals, but the best measure of greatness is this -- a transformation of a feeble force into a mighty one by the complete dedication of one's physical and mental endeavour in order to overcome all obstacles and to preserve it burning brightly like a beacon on the mountain top.

D.R. Wijewardene

The running of a newspaper is more hazardous than any other venture. If it is successful one may derive sufficient wealth and power to influence a country, a nation, a government. If it fails, the owner will be completely crushed.

Wijewardene established several newspapers -- the Dinamina, Silumina, Daily News, Observer, Thinakaran and Sunday Thinakaran. He trained a generation of gifted journalists to man these newspapers. He organized an able administration and installed printing machinery which could print twenty thousand copies per hour in colour. To say "If one had money one can do all this" is foolish. It would be wiser to say "this could ruin me".

Having, overcome the perils of an arduous journey, Wijewardene set about to equip his newspaper group known as Lake House or The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon and to establish it on an unshakeable foundation. He created it thus in the firm resolve to devote his body, mind and spirit, to this cause.

Wijewardene came to office at 10 in the morning. He would first examine the financial section and the printing department to ensure that the papers reached the outstations in time before the people woke up. He would investigate delays with the managers. The offenders were reprimanded, advised and warned. He worked until one O'clock. After lunch he would ponder on what was to go into the following days press. At three O'clock he would return to the office and confer with the news editors, sub-editors and reporters. He would remind them of matters they had forgotten and draw their attention to neglected public issues. Important news not sufficiently displayed or minor news items over-displayed were brought to the notice of those responsible. If news which the public was interested in did not appear on time he would seek out the order and call for an explanation. Working on thus till 8 p.m. was his daily routine. It was unusual for a man to exert his mind and body unceasingly till the age of sixty. But he was one of the great.

When the Donoughmore Commission's Report was to be released he took immediate and timely action with a rare boldness. The report was to be released simultaneously in England and Ceylon. But due to the time difference between the two countries it would be released in Ceylon the day following its release in England. The report would then have to appear in the evening newspapers -- The Daily News would carry it the following morning. This would have been a defeat, an inadequacy for Wijewardene's morning paper.

He knew what he must do and he did it immediately. The London Office was ordered to obtain a copy of the report as soon as it was released in England and cable it to Ceylon. It would be night when the cable was received here. Then it had to be sub-edited, set up and the proofs passed, making it impossible to appear in the morning paper.

Wijewardene decided at once what he should do and sent a fleet of cars to the Telegraph Office. As the lengthy report came over the wires each page was rushed by car to the newspaper office. Each car turned back and returned with another page. A group of sub-editors went through the pages, and passed them over to be set up by the compositors. Wijewardene remained in the office till dawn. Next morning the Daily News was out with the Donoughmore Commission report to the astonishment of the politicians and the government. The government issued the report later in the day.

On a Sunday morning the Japanese in a few planes dropped bombs over Colombo. Though it was a day on which he did not attend office Wijewardene went earlier than usual to the office that day. It was not often that he walked around the building. Only the editorial staff work on Sunday morning and Wijewardene went upstairs and visited all the rooms unlike his usual practice ascertaining for himself which members of the staff had stayed away from work out of fear and those who came to work disregarding danger. Realising that it would not be possible to publish the newspapers the following day. He dispatched vehicles to bring those who were absent. That the Associated Newspapers was so organized that it was able to daily distribute newspapers in three languages all over Ceylon, despite the differences of opinion amongst us on the newspaper policies was a testimony to Wijewardene's personality and eminence.

Soon after Wijewardene completed his barrister's exam and returned to Ceylon he devoted himself to the welfare of the people and engaged in a campaign for reforms. With this objective he organized several associations. He founded the Social Service League and became its leading light. Later he resigned from them all determined to publish a newspaper through which he hoped he could serve his country.

No person who works for his people can satisfy every body unless he is a hypocrite -- a newspaper which seeks to speak for the people will inevitably displease some political diehards. Wijewardene did not glorify any single person or party as he regarded every politician as a servant of his country. Nor could he tolerate hypocrites or hypocrisy.

Highly skilled in his field, he would utilize strategy if it was possible to accomplish his task by strategy, he would utilize frankness if frankness was necessary or use sympathy and kindness if that would gain his objective. But he used all not for his personal benefit or to publicise his name or people. To these aspects he was quite indifferent excelling other well-known persons in the country.

He applied high standards for himself as well as for others in order to get the best results. This was also for the benefit of his country and his people. He involved himself more deeply than others. Total endeavour was the lifestyle he chose and he placed high value on those who worked in a similar fashion. This was an inborn trait of his character which, I think, led some to mistakenly believe that he was a martinet.

Producing seven newspapers and high success in a risky venture would naturally give rise to pride. Pride in achievement is the only joy available to the able man who does not seek public praise or fame. In some able persons this pride grows to such an extent that they become intolerant of those who fail. But Wijewardene's brand of pride hurt nobody despite his success as a press magnate. He was compassionate, kind and sympathetic.

But with a work force of more than thousand and the daily problems before him he could not exercise these qualities to the full. If he did so it would have hampered this vast business enterprise. But from time to time his kindness and sympathy were evident to us. The greatness of Wijewardene's life must be observed intelligently without bias. Viewed from a partisan attitude, however, the true virtues and the unique character of his great personality are beyond comprehension.

(This is a translation of an article in Sinhala)

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