Remembering Mervyn on his 75th birthday

by Nihal Jayawickrama

For an entire term another teacher never let me forget for a single moment that I was seated at the desk once occupied by Mr. H. V. Perera. "Boy, boy", he snarled at me whenever I missed the date of the Armada or couldn’t recognize an Ablative Absolute, "you are disgracing that desk".

Unable to carry that psychological burden for long, I bribed a less sensitive student into exchanging places. That teacher is now no more but I have no doubt that others in his profession employ the same battery of tricks. I wonder who the lucky devil is who sits at the desk I sat?

Surely he must be saying a silent prayer of thanks that his unknown predecessor did not attain the heights of an H. V. Perera. I can scarcely believe that any teacher would taunt an erring schoolboy by reminding him that he is disgracing a seat which has only produced the indifferent success of a part-time journalist.

This was Mervyn de Silva, "chronicling" in 1955 the story of his life, the last in a series of articles required by his editor on the life and times of "men and women of ripe age" with a "notable record in their special field". The editor had suggested that the series end with the "best of them all", and the 25-year old Mervyn thought that meant he could chronicle his own story. Or so he would have the reader believe! Today, on the 75th anniversary of his birth, five years after he passed away, none would disagree that, among the post-independence journalists this country has produced, he was indeed "the best of them all".

My first year at Royal College, was Mervyn’s last. Although the total strength of the school was barely 650, and the principal, Mr. J. C. A. Corea could justifiably claim that he knew the surnames of all his students, if not their initials as well, there was no way for a first-former to claim even a nodding acquaintance with a sixth-former. But I was privileged because my brother was also in his final year. He and Mervyn were editors of the Royal College Magazine, and had spent the war years together at Glendale (the boarding school in Bandarawela which Mervyn described as Belsen Camp, and to which he traced his hatred towards totalitarianism). I still recall some of their other colleagues: P. C. B. Fernando, K. N. Seneviratne and A. D. P. Jayatilleke (all of whom were to become professors), T. Parathalingam, John de Saram and Felix R. Dias (lawyers), Daya Samarasinghe and S. D. N. Hapugalle (Sandhurst). These were some from whom, as U. S. Jayawickrama’s brother, I occasionally received a nod; or so I imagined. When, in due course, I too reached the sixth form and then entered the Peradeniya campus of the University of Ceylon, I found myself in the same hall of residence as Mervyn’s younger brother, Neville, from St. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia.

The legends surrounding Mervyn de Silva were still very much alive when I entered Peradeniya, particularly since Neville appeared to have decided to trace his brother’s footsteps. Predicted to obtain a "first", Mervyn had found time to attend lectures only in his first year. Although he claimed he had not answered the requisite number of questions to pass his final examination, he graduated with a "pass", an event which, according to his son Dayan, he attributed to Professor Ludowyk’s anxiety to save the face of the English Department. In 1956, in my final year at school, I remember my uncle, Justice T. S. Fernando, returning home after judging the annual oratorical contest at the Law College and saying how impressed he and the other two judges, H. W. Jayewardene QC and G. E. Chitty QC, were with the gold medal winner that year, a young man named Mervyn de Silva. Much later, of course, I heard how Mervyn, after a wildly successful first year, had again not found the time to attend any lectures in his second and third years. He probably aspired to be a university professor or a queen’s counsel, or even a civil servant, but was spared having to spend the best years of his life in a small lecture theatre, an even smaller courtroom or in a distant kachcheri, with a group of disinterested students or a single judge as his audience, or a confidential diary to record his thoughts and experiences. What, in fact, he received was space to develop his individuality, space to project his unique personality, and the opportunity to address an enormous captive audience through the media, here and abroad.

As a student, I was fascinated by the writings of "Daedalus", and I retained clippings of his annual columns published on the morning of the Royal-Thomian match. But it was our mutual interest in international affairs that led him, in 1969, to ask me to be the honorary treasurer of the Ceylon Institute of World Affairs, which he desired to re-activate. Founded in 1957 on the personal initiative of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, it had been inactive thereafter for a long time, principally due to funds promised by government not materializing. Lal Jayawardene and K. H. Jayasinghe had agreed to be the honorary secretaries. Mervyn was elected secretary-general and Major-General Anton Muttukumaru, who had recently returned to the island after serving as an ambassador abroad, was elected president. Mervyn’s hope that the Institute would be a regular independent forum for the discussion of international affairs began to be realized, at least during the next six or seven years.

Since 1952, the management of Lake House had sought to influence, through its newspapers, the result of every general election. They failed in 1956, and again in 1960. The vicious newspaper attacks to which S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was subjected did not bring down his Government during his lifetime. In fact, no prime minister was villified in the press as he was. Yet no prime minister was tolerant as he was of public criticism. His policy of confronting criticism and maintaining a continuous dialogue with the community no doubt contributed towards his party’s strong re-emergence within months of his untimely death. That policy changed in 1960 when the victorious SLFP decided to bring the vanquished Lake House under its control. But in the wholly unnecessary survival battles that followed, the SLFP invariably lost. For instance, in 1964 the SLFP-LSSP Coalition Government was brought down in Parliament, and in 1965 the coalition was defeated in the general election that followed.

When the United Front won the 1970 general election with a two-third majority, despite the ferocious campaign conducted against it by the Lake House management, there was no reason to retaliate against the newspaper company. This was particularly so after Mervyn was appointed editor of the "Daily News", as the management’s response to the formation of the UF government. His first editorial proclaimed the new "credo" - a commitment to the accepted principles of fair, responsible and independent journalism. He did not fail to honour them. He not only restored the credibility of the "Daily News", but also re-established the pre-eminent position it had enjoyed in the community for so long. Then, inexplicably, the Government decided to take on Lake House.

That decision was politically and socially disastrous. It was probably pique, rather than sound political judgment, that influenced the decision; pique at the role of the Lake House management in securing the defection of several members of parliament sufficient in number to defeat the SLFP-LSSP coalition government in 1964; pique that a Royal Commission had failed to find sufficient evidence to conclude that these members of parliament had been bribed by Lake House. But the original 1971 decision was not to "take over" or nationalize Lake House. It was to broadbase it. I was asked by Mrs. Bandaranaike to prepare draft legislation as a matter of urgency. It was evident that she was attempting to fend off a growing body of opinion within her cabinet that wished to use the Business Acquisition Act for the purpose. The instructions I received from the Prime Minister were quite explicit: the ownership of the company is to be broadbased, and while that process is in motion, the Government will have no authority to issue any directions on editorial policy.

I discussed the mechanics of the exercise with both Ranjit Wijewardene, the chairman of the company, and Mervyn de Silva, and their advice was invaluable. After it had been decided that the Public Trustee would be the intermediary for the broadbasing exercise, I had several hours of discussion with Mervyn, and he briefed me comprehensively on the problems that the new management would be faced with and, in turn, I briefed the Prime Minister who had decided to retain the subject under her. These ranged from the functional basis of the directorate and staff morale to newsprint, printing ink, distribution, advertisements, foreign news, finance and transport. Mervyn was insistent that to achieve the long term objective of maintaining the company as a going, viable concern, it was essential to run it purely on a commercial basis, able to reach out to all sections of the newspaper reading public whatever their political beliefs or allegiances may be. This required a company chairman who was wise, strong, independent and free of political patronage, but that unfortunately was not to be. Consequently, though designated successively as editor, editor-in-chief, editorial director and editorial adviser, the free spirit within Mervyn refused to be reined in, and barely two years later, the government-controlled newspaper company rid itself of its greatest asset.

Two years into his new job as editor-in-chief of the rival, privately owned Times Group of newspapers, the new UNP Government stepped in and acquired that old and established company under the Business Acquisition Act. At this point, Mervyn achieved the unique distinction of having been dismissed by two governments of sharply divergent political complexions. It vindicated his integrity, his independence, and his commitment to the highest standards of professionalism. But when journalists cease to work, unlike public servants and politicians, they do not receive a pension for life. I doubt that either Mervyn, or his wife and "anchor" Lakshmi, ever exercised strict financial discipline at home. Consequently, the two body blows at the prime of his career must have left Mervyn in the same condition in which I found myself when I resigned from the ministry of justice following the general election of 1977 and discovered that the Bar had become for me a no-go area.

Undaunted and resilient, Mervyn opened a new front when he founded The Lanka Guardian in 1978. Whether he intended it or not, that fortnightly publication soon became a centre for critical thought, a beacon of liberalism, the meeting point for unorthodox opinion, the forum for the alternative view. As the Jayewardene Government slowly but systematically tightened its grip on dissent, Father Tissa Balasuriya’s Centre for Society and Religion, and Mervyn de Silva’s Lanka Guardian provided the only democratic space that was regularly available to articulate liberal humanist values. I recall using the columns of the Lanka Guardian to argue, for instance, that discrimination, exclusion, and the denial of self-determination, and not terrorism, was the real problem of the time; and to demonstrate that the PTA infringed so many of our human rights treaty obligations.

Mervyn de Silva played many different roles in his lifetime. He was at once a satirist, literary critic, political commentator and foreign news analyst. To anyone who enjoyed his hospitality in the lively company of Lakshmi, more often than not at the Capri as my wife and I did, he was an excellent raconteur with an impish sense of humour. Behind the self imposed veils of "Daedalus", "Outsider", "Old Timer" and "Kautilya", one easily discerned the inimitable style, the incisive mind, and the sharp irony of that quintessential journalist of our time, the irrepressible Mervyn de Silva. He lived in the age of Tarzie Vittachi, Denzil Peries, Reggie Michael, Ernest Corea and many more; he received no honours, held no public office, and carried no titles; but if versatility is the test of the complete journalist, Mervyn de Silva was surely "the best of them all".


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