Simon Dring is perhaps a more known and respected name in Bangladesh than many Bengali journalists even. Simply through his journalism this white skinned man won the heart of us brown skinned people. He was a model creative professional journalist. He had Bangladesh in his bones, his marrow, his beliefs. Simon had been given honorary citizenship. So even though he was British by birth, he was a Bangladeshi from head to toe.
This bond that formed between Bangladesh and Simon was a sudden one. Back in 1971 he was a young reporter with The Telegraph of London. He had gone to Vietnam to cover Cambodia. East Pakistan was in turmoil at the time. Rather than send another reporter from London, Simon was sent to Dhaka. He arrived in Dhaka in March, when Dhaka was in an uproar. He covered Bangabandhu’s 7 March speech in the Race Course Maidan (Now Suhrawardy Udyan). He later struck up a friendship with Sheikh Mujib.
Simon repeatedly wanted to come back to this country. He wanted to settle here with his wife Fiona and twin daughters India and Ava. Once he took Fiona to Gazipur. He saw a thatched roofed mud house there in the hills. He said he would buy land there, make a mud house, work in Dhaka and go there for the weekends
About the 7 March speech, Simon would say, “I did not understand the speech but I was amazed by his determination and people’s faith in him.” A professional journalist to core, Simon said, “That speech, that public rally and the various measures taken by the Pakistan government made me certain that it will be a battleground. History was going to be written here.” It was the best time for a journalist to be here and he informed his London office that he wasn’t leaving Dhaka.
Everyone knows the rest of the story. This young hardworking investigative journalist delved into the depths of Pakistan’s politics. He had his sources. He caught Sheikh Mujib’s attention as a brilliant journalist. Simon’s love for Bangladesh and Mujib was one and the same.
The Pakistanis forced all foreign journalists to leave Dhaka on the night of 25 March. He hid in Hotel Intercontinental and the next day Simon Dring was the only foreign journalist who witnessed the brutality of the Pakistan Army. Finally on 27 March the army sent him and his assistant cameraman away from the country. But Simon managed to take his notebook with him and his cameraman also managed to sneak out his reel of film.
The Telegraph on 30 March 1971 published Simon Dring’s report, ‘Tanks crush revolt in Pakistan.’ People around the world got to know about the killing spree of 25 March night, the brutality of the Pakistan army. Simon left Pakistan, but returned to India. He covered the Liberation War on the ground. Simon and a few other journalists were even detained for some time in Kolkata at the time. Simon Dring, who had been forced to leave Pakistan, returned to independent Bangladesh on 16 December 1971. He covered the Victory Day and returned to London. He returned again on 10 January 1972, the day Bangabandhu returned to the country after his release from prison in Pakistan.
Simon plunged into deep sorrow when Bangabandhu was assassinated along with his family on 15 August 1975. He had changed workplaces and was with BBC at the time. He had gathered a lot of experience by then, having covered wars and conflicts around the world. But Bangladesh remained in his mind.
When the pro-liberation government came to power in 1996, various initiatives were taken up in the country and permission was given for private television channels. A veteran in media ownership in this country, AS Mahmud, took up the venture to establish Ekushey Television. And Simon came to Dhaka to join him in the venture. He took over as the MD of Ekushey Television. AS Mahmud gave him complete free rein.
Simon Dring led a group of young journalists and opened wide the door of television journalism. His leadership and creativity undoubtedly made him the father of broadcast journalism in this country, even in this subcontinent
Simon Dring led a group of young journalists and opened wide the door of television journalism. His leadership and creativity undoubtedly made him the father of broadcast journalism in this country, even in this subcontinent.
Simon taught many, including myself, hands-on, the difference between news presentation for television and newspapers, between preparing copy and the use of technology. It was from him that I learnt how to select news, use pictures and voice to reach the people. Whoever in Ekushey successfully managed to reach the minds of the people, were all products of Simon’s creative planning. There was a lot of similarities between the editorial policy of Ekushey and any policies of the government at the time.
Due to Simon’s professional leadership, journalism did not disappear into the government’s policy, but nor were there any conflicts. In running Ekushey, Simon was our teacher every day. He was my guru. He converted a group of journalists from the print media into unparalleled professional journalists of the electronic media. It was not just news bulletin. If you watch Ekushey Television even today, you will see Simon’s farsighted plans for bulletin-based programmes.
He did not believe in commercial non-serious work. It was Simon who introduced programmes about the newspapers, analysis of international news, talk shows on current affairs, special interviews and such. I most humbly state that he created the post of chief news editor for me at Ekushey Television and initiated these programmes with me. Television had no such post of programmes before.
Just as a presenter must have the competence to conduct a talk show, it is also a difficult task to select the suitable guest. Simon taught us how important a producer and research team is behind a programme. Simon would never tolerate the presenters and the guests you can get a dime a dozen today. If we went to him with the proposal for any programme he would ask why and when we wanted to do it. If he was satisfied with the answer, he would ask how many episodes would there be in the programme? Who would be the guests in the episodes. If he was satisfied with the answer, he would ask if he had a competence producer and research team to make the programme. Only if he was satisfied with all these matters, would he give his clearance. In newsroom management, he would give due consideration to any suggestions given not just from newsroom leaders, but all staff, even those outside of Dhaka.
Even though at times language cropped up as a problem in running the team, Simon would listen to the issue in English from three or four persons and then take a final decision. It was not easy to confuse him. Nothing, big or small, would escape his eye. Basically, it was his leadership that took Ekushey to the pinnacle of success.
In this country, no one likes anyone superseding them. Not only do they envy them, but go all to destroy them. That is what happened in the case of Ekushey Television after the 2001 election. Ekushey Television became the target of the authorities’ ire for three reasons: 1. Ekushey was a declared pro-liberation entity, 2. The prime minister at the time Sheikh Hasina had inaugurated Ekushey Television, 3. The people had absolute trust in Ekushey Television. The authorities wanted to shut down Ekushey and create their own dream television channel.
A case was filed against Ekushey. I am not in favour of shutting down any media, but I just want to remind certain journalists who are lamenting the closure of certain media today, that a predecessor of one of the leaders among them was a plaintiff in the case against Ekushey back then. I also want to point out that the verdict did not call for the closure of Ekushey.
Even so, Ekushey had been the victim of vicious vengeance. In this vengeance of the BNP-Jamaat government, within 24 hours with unnatural speed the police shut down Ekushey Television and around 50,000 creative persons, directly and indirectly involved in the channel, found themselves unemployed. Not only that, Simon Dring too was the victim of BNP-Jamaat’s vengeance. His work permit was cancelled and he was given 24 hours notice to leave the country. The police were instructed to make sure that no one could go to see Simon off at the airport. Even in such difficult times, with intelligence agents all around, a few of us arranged a brief farewell for him on the green lawns of the Liberation War Museum in Segun Bagicha. Many of those who used to try to get into Simon’s good books, did not turn up at the event. In fact, many two-faced hypocrites of Ekushey also did not attend the farewell.
Simon left Dhaka on 30 August. I cannot forget his tears of that day. Even in that painful moment, Simon smiled sadly and said, “The Pakistanis once drove me out of this country, now this second time it is the BNP-Jamaat government. Maybe the third time I will be able to come here permanently.” After some time Ekushey Television was freed, but by then all sorts of garbage had entered it. Simon did not get to return.
However, after a long interval, Simon did come back. He joined a private channel. He had a lot of dreams about creating a team. I knew about this and who were on his list. I was with another television at the time and he would often come over in the evenings. But then at a juncture he realised he hadn’t taken a correct decision. Deeply disappointed, he left.
There was a possibility of him returning for the fourth time. That was when I joined Ekushey Television for the second term. Initiative was taken to bring Simon back, but behind the back of the owners, some underhand quarters put forward certain demeaning conditions for which Simon did not return.
Simon repeatedly wanted to come back to this country. He wanted to settle here with his wife Fiona and twin daughters India and Ava. Once he took Fiona to Gazipur. He saw a thatched roofed mud house there in the hills. He said he would buy land there, make a mud house, work in Dhaka and go there for the weekends.
Fiona works with the poor in Romania and so she had no objection at all. But Simon never got to come back. His dream of a mud house remained a dream.
The government honoured Simon as a friend of Bangladesh. He came to Bangladesh again, not to stay but to accept the honour from prime minister Sheikh Hasina. Many eminent foreign nationals consider Bangladesh as their own land. Most of them came as missionaries and took the people as their own and the people to have held them close.
But Simon built up a team of creative young people. He created a new road map for this country’s journalism. This country’s broadcasting journalism is proceeding along that map. Simon Dring will remain a role model to this new generation of journalists. He will remain the father of broadcast journalism in Bangladesh. He will remain a symbol of how much a professional creative journalist can be loved and respected by the people. Farewell guru.
* Monjurul Ahsan Bulbul is a senior journalist
* This article, originally published in the Bangla online, has been rewritten for English edition of Prothom Alo by Ayesha Kabir