Long before I had met Simon Dring at a lunch where we discussed the media market and such issues along with Farhad Mahmud of Ekushey TV, I suppose we had met, metaphorically that is, in the alleys of Old Dhaka. As I looked for the past in the narrow lanes of old cities where the Pakistan army had hunted down those they saw as the enemies of Pakistan he seemed to be perpetually alive. He lived in the memory of many who had survived the killer combing operations and lived to tell the tale to him and he told the world.
A particular man had a strong memory of his encounter with the “Sahib” he had met. He was the Shaheb who came to find out what happened two days after hell. Even in those days of March genocide, they had helped him to discover the killing fields. As we talked his body was trembling. We sat down at a local tea shop bench. The trauma never left his body, he said. He would tremble and shiver whenever the memories were revived. I felt bad but there was nothing I could do. I was the listener and I had the desperately traumatic task of asking questions about those days. He went on talking as I recorded, took notes and tried to remember names. The name I heard and remembered was that of Simon Dring.
Many foreign journalists were in Dhaka when March 25 arrived who were in town covering the political crisis. That night when the Operation Searchlight was launched by the Pak army, they were all herded inside the Intercontinental Hotel (Ruposhi Bangla), and later sent away by plane to prevent reporting the genocide. Simon Dring hid in the hotel's lobby, kitchen and rooftop for a couple of days helped by the staff members. They took the risk doing so knowing they faced certain death if caught by the Pak army.
The curfew was lifted on March 27 and a slightly disguised Simon went out and collected evidence of what happened in Dhaka. It was the first eye witness report of the crackdown and was published in The Daily Telegraph on March 30, 1971. It was history.
Simon was as restless as he was a journalist. It was a great fit. He ran away from home and later wrote a book on it. He ended up in the Vietnam War covering it as a journalist but the wanderlust was what prompted him to become a journalist. What better life for a man who loves to roam than do so as part of his work.
Simon John Dring worked for Reuters, The Daily Telegraph of London, and BBC Television, Radio News, and Current Affairs. He never retired and covered over two dozen wars, unrests and revolutions. He was the youngest correspondent at 19 years working for Reuters.
He won several awards including the UK Reporter of the Year for his Dhaka 1971 war and the UK Television News Reporter of the Year for his reports for BBC Television News from Eritrea, Zaire, and Iran. He was also awarded the Golden Nymph Award at Monte Carlo Television Festival for his reporting on the Iranian Revolution and the International Valiant For Truth award for his reports on the EPLF guerrilla forces in Eritrea, both for BBC Television. The list is longer but knowing him, he wouldn’t be impressed by such awards.
I met Simon in real life and flesh in 1999 when he was setting up ETV . As Joint Managing Director of ETV (working with Farhad Mahmud, son of the ETV Chairman, the late A. S. Mahmud) he was the member of the big team. He wanted to meet me and discuss media issues as I had been part of several related research projects. I think the BBC grapevine also worked and as we both had batted for the BBC, a common ground was set. He also knew about my 1971 research work so we kind of fitted. He offered me a job in media planning at ETV. He was himself planning to do a lot of work and so I also could help his plans.
Many people were already working there and became lifelong friends including Fuad Chowdhury , now basically running Deepto TV. So was Rahber Khan. Nawajesh Ali Khan, Abed Khan etc. A group of young persons had also joined or were joining including Mishuk Munier, Samia Zaman and later G.I. Mamun, Munni Shaha and others who are now star names in the TV media world.
It was quite an international affair as the training crew landed from BBC London and what they offered was of quality. One of the banks backing ETV was represented by an Indian gent living in London also. I was given the task of preparing the news and programme schedule. I did the work as per audience research and made a presentation to all which was appreciated and duly forgotten. I lost interest in media desk work and left without informing anyone officially. It was 2 weeks before Simon noticed I was gone. Looking back it was hilarious but also showed how important I was to ETV.
Simon called me back and he offered me a part time non-time bound assignment and to do a series on 1971. I put a team together and immediately began to work. Simon too was very interested and there was footage and recordings which can’t be made anymore. It was a revealing journey and the team including Bari bhai behind the camera, Ranjan Mallick, Ghalib and Pervez and others made up a wonderful bunch of skilled professionals who made this work possible. The inaugural was filmed but never screened. It was not deemed politically correct enough. Sadly, all the footage were lost during ETV’s lost years. So much for our love of history.
It was around this time I got an offer from Panos South Asia to lead their office in Kathmandu and left. A year later I returned and joined the Daily Star and life took new turns. After the 2001 elections ETV was found to be on the wrong side of politics. It had never hidden its position but Bangladesh was a political binary and ETV was one of the earliest sacrifices to make the point.
Simon soon left, having lost ETV. He returned for a short stint persuaded by Abu Alam who was with ETV too but basically a bureaucrat of the AL gharana. His relationship with Simon was one of respect and affection and he persuaded Simon to join Jamuna TV but it was never really the same. Simon left soon leaving hundreds of colleagues and admirers behind him in Dhaka.
Simon’s legacy and his regret
Simon’s contribution to bring the world’s attention to the situation in Bangladesh has been internationally recognized. Any media history will testify to that. Bangladesh has also awarded him with the Friends of Bangladesh award so he will never be forgotten. It’s not just citizens discarded by history who will remember but people in general. But that period in his life was over even as he took charge of setting ETV up. What he did there is his greatest media achievement.
Simon provided the platform for modern Bangladesh TV as we know it now. He worked on form not content and that is what made it different. Of course he had no real competitor in that sense because BTV was mired in being official but Simon gave ETV and news media a professional dynamic brand that nobody had done before. He brought in younger souls and gave them an idea of what modern TV looked like and that spirit continues. He was also one of the earliest who considered research as an important input for developing production policies.
In many ways, Bangladesh was lucky because ETV’s biggest achievement and that of Simon’s was to urbanize the TV screen, moving from the pastoral legacy of the BTV to the new world. There was money all around and many media investors were coming up who would now lead the media market. While they had the cash, they didn’t have the eyesight and nor did a vast range of old world seniors. Simon changed that and created a tribe of TV professionals who were young, brash and ready to move ahead Many of today’s TV professionals of the mid and upper range are members of that group and that is Simon’s greatest achievement.
The sadness lies in the departure from ETV which was felled by politics. ETV itself had benefited from it but the scale of hostility that was displayed showed a new level of political partisanship that has damaged media professionalism. It has not recovered from that.
Simon was in that sense lucky as he was part of a world which was driven by professionalism and he tried to imbibe that spirit among his colleagues in Bangladesh. Many did, many didn’t but all were touched by the magic of his enthusiasm, pride in work and commitment to media excellence.
So farewell Simon, you got it right most of the time, whether in covering a story or building a TV station. It’s one hell of a successful life. Cheers.