Tales from the news desk

: laughs, lethargy, plagiarism, sycophancy and downright stupidity

by Pearl Thevanayagam

(March 19, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) Local government polls have come and gone and UPFA will carry on merrily and the media has hacked them enough so I shall desist from any comments. Besides, I was not there. On this beautiful spring morning in London I woke up with a light heart and a reminiscence of my news desk days inspired me to write this light piece about my colleagues.

News desks would have been too tedious a place had it not been for the colourful characters who orbited them. From photographers to translators, cub reporters to subs and of course the proof readers (now a dying generation thanks to computers and Quark Express packages doing their job albeit with Americanised spellings), they undo the writers’ block we all suffer from time to time.

Lake House photographer and unofficial cameraman for President Premadasa and his cabinet ministers, Roland Perera, was sent to cover a marathon and as the prospective winner was frantically racing to reach his target in the last leg of the race, Roland focused his camera at him and shouted,”stop” to catch the hero in action.

Incidentally Roland’s main occupation was running a snack bar opposite Fort Railway Station donated to him by President Premadasa for services rendered.

Then there was another photographer who was showing round a few tourists the exhibits in the Kandy Museum. On spotting a skull a tourist asked him who this worthy man was. Prompt came the reply, “Oh, this belongs to Keppetipola who fought the British in the early 1880’s to protect the Kandyan Kingdom”. Finding a smaller skull next to it the tourist wanted to know its origin. Without blinking an eye the cameraman replied, “This was Keppetipola when he was a child”.

G.S.Dissanayake was a translator at the Daily News and fighting the mad Colombo traffic he used to arrive on his moped rather late in the day perspiring and flushed and apart from translating news he also had to translate the horoscope from Sinhala to English. He had a desk next to mine and one fine day he could not find that particular day’s horoscope. Then his face brightened up and he proceeded to translate the previous week’s horoscope and our news editor Aaron who daren’t leave his chair in case he loses his job and who never missed a day in his very long sojourn promptly passed it for publication.

The year was 1992 and on June 05 Colombo went under water with record floods. I was the only reporter who showed up that day for work in the Daily News drenched to the skin. Aaron rubbed his hands in glee since he already had a lead for the day and he even threw a screwed up ball of newsprint at me in jest. Although I feared him most of the time (he hated anyone sitting idly at the desk; he wanted every reporter to go out and bring him stories and very often since they were my early days and I did not have that comfortable rapport with government politicians my seniors had, I used to sit at the typewriter and twiddle my thumbs looking for an inspirational story) now I felt rather brave since he told me to go and cover the floods. Usually I am sent to cover boring press conferences of politicians and corporate bodies.

Aaron arranged Minister Sellasamy’s four -wheel drive for the cameraman and myself to go round and bring stories of devastation of the floods. As we reached Gregory’s Road I spotted a man sitting on top of the thatched roof of a hut standing next to a mansion. The hut was almost totally submerged and I got down from the vehicle to speak to the man. But Nishantha, the cameraman, started taking pictures from inside the vehicle. When I asked him to get down to take a closer shot he said,” Miss, mata tikkak una hathila. Enisa amma kewa vassa vahinakota yanda eppa kiyala.” What he said was that he has a temperature and his mother had told him not to go out when it rains. And Nishantha was 40 years old!!.

Kapila Somaratne was our Panadura correspondent and since correspondents get paid for the number of stories they bring unlike the regular reporters based at Lake House who have a fixed monthly income, he used to bring in daily news reports ranging from opening schools and other buildings by government politicians, religious festivals,family brawls, burglary and as the journalistic dictum goes he brings in anything that is fit to be published.

Somaratne brought a story to Aaron and it went something like this.

`The Honourable minister for Prison Reforms Tyronne Fernando opened the new school building block at Moratuwea Madya Maha Vidyala yesterday.

The Honourable Minister praised the staff, principal and the volunteers who made this urgent need of a new block happen.

The Honourable Minister then thanked those present and awarded prizes for excellence.’

At this point Aaron barked at Somaratne, “Yakko, you don’t have to say Honourable after each sentence. Go and re-write the story”.

He then sat down scribbled for a few minutes and this is how his story was transformed.

The Honourable Minister for Prison Reforms Tyronne Fernando opened the new school building block at Moratuwa Madya Maha Vidyalaya by cutting the ribbon yesterday.

The ribbon cutter said..........

The coroner was describing to a pack of reporters that the body was found floating in the river with hands and mouth tied. One eager reporter asked, “Do you suspect foul play?” (This a is a story picked up somewhere but it could easily have been a Lake House reporter)

As for yours truly I have had my absurd moments. When I started at Weekend (now defunct) my editor Manu Gunasena asked me rewrite a press release and give it a headline. Since I was a novice in journalism I wrote `press release’ as my headline.

Then there was this senior editor at the Sun who dared to ask Housing Minister Sirisena Cooray that the government favours its supports to get free housing. Cooray shot back, “ By the way, How do you find the house I gave you?” No further questions came from this worthy journalist.

Since journalists are paid a pittance they also act as press officers to various ministers. One such veteran journalist who recently passed away used to plug in Thondaman stories for which he received a separate pay. Also his science page under his by-line was produced by his wife, a science teacher, and he filled in the gaps with wire stories.

The unspoken rule at Lake House is do not contradict the government or Lake House hierarchy. As long as you abide by these mantra your job is assured. I never ever got to know the name of this journalist who used be at his desk sharp at 9.00am and leave at five. I had never seen him go out or write anything. Occasionally he would let out a yawn which makes me sigh in relief and think, ‘he’s alive’. Promptly at 1.00pm he has his lunch from a silver lunchbox wrapped in a napkin. And then back to day-dreaming until closing time.

Wickremasinghe, the other translator at the Daily News, appears for exactly two hours a day whenever he is not absent due to sickness which is most days of the week. He was given attendance bonus every year by the late Norton Weerasinghe, former administrative officer.

Then there was Gilbert ,the oldest at the Daily News, who would never been seen dead without his matchless tie. He cannot coin two sentences for toffee but his speciality is lifting files from ministerial departments. His modus operandi goes something like this; He greets the department head and then places his file on top of the head’s files on the desk. After a long chat he bids adieu and leaves with both his file and the department’s.

Once back at his desk he goes through them or rather hands it over to a knowledgeable journalist to find any dubious deals or transactions. He was a treasure the editor could not do without.

Tales from news-desks are far too many for me to include in this piece so I shall save them for a rainy day.

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