Mandela in hospital: Let the media do their job

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As the nation awaits news of its Madiba, an inevitable debate has sprung up around the coverage of his stay in hospital. It's being claimed that it's ghoulish to sit outside an institution, waiting for someone to die.

It was also suggested that it somehow lessens the dignity of the former president. As with most debates around the media, it's actually a debate about our society, and what is acceptable and what is not. I'm a reporter, a journalist, a radio presenter and a current affairs addict. So I have an opinion.

And if we are going to have this debate, allow me to humbly give the case of the news media. Or at least, my version of that case. By STEPHEN GROOTES, writing, unashamedly, with an agenda.

Let me first sum up what I believe to be the case against media coverage. First, it's just somehow wrong to sit outside a hospital waiting for someone to die; it's inhuman and damages Madiba's dignity. Secondly, journalists are only doing this to make money. And thirdly, it's simply unnecessary - no useful purpose is served by doing this.

Now, let me reply.

The health of Nelson Mandela IS a news story. It is something that people are interested in. It fits literally the definition of news, in that he is someone who is high profile, someone who quite literally created the country we live in, and therefore is an important subject to cover. He's someone who many of us grew up with on our TV screens, whose voice we could recognise instantly, someone who is a part of our lives. And if he's feeelig unwell, we want to know the latest. As we would with anyone who is close to our hearts.

This poses certain problems. If you are an organisation with a daily edition, such as a newspaper, you only need to publish one report on his condition. If you are, say the SABC or e.TV, then again, you can spend the day crafting the best possible television piece, with various pictures and interviews with newsmakers to be flighted at 7pm. So if Mac Maharaj does release a statement, or do an interview, you can use that as the bulk of your news item.

It's much harder for those who do hourly updates, or rolling news, 24-hour coverage. Because the issue that people of South Africa, and the world, are talking about is, quite literally, Madiba's health; you cannot ignore it. And it is a continually-developing story.

Remember the hunt for the Boston Bomber, those scenes of police officers literally going house to house, knocking on doors, and mothers and fathers clutching their children as they evacuated the area? Everyone who could, did watch it, because it was happening live. It was like being there. And that's the role the media is playing here as well. It's taking the viewer, the reader, the listener, to the scene.

Let me use another analogy. If you could watch the Springboks in the World Cup Final live, or delayed by five hours, which would you pick?

Then comes the claim that this story could be covered without actually camping outside the hospital, or Madiba's home. Well, technically that could perhaps be done. Certainly for a newspaper. But for broadcast news, you actually do have to be on the scene, as close to the event as you can be. If you are not, if you look like you are far away from the action, you lose immediacy and the viewer's trust. Because if we could, perhaps we all would go to the hospital to say goodbye to this man who is a relative to all of us. But we can't, and this is the next best thing.

You could claim that broadcasters are clearly doing this to keep their figures up, to make money. That capitalism is forcing them to behave in this manner, to injure the dignity of Nelson Mandela.

But that doesn't hold, either. If it were only a commercial issue, the SABC would not have led with this story in its main TV news bulletins last night.

Then comes the claim that somehow reporters are invading Madiba's privacy.

The only response is this: How, exactly? Is there actually a reporter in his room? No. Would anyone try that? No one that I know. Would anyone use that video if they got it? Not if they wanted to keep their audience, they wouldn't.

Has anyone actually gone and even knocked on the door of Mandela's home, or tried to doorstop Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in an aggressive way? The answer to all of this is no. What they've done is sit on a public street, and speak to passers-by. You know, tourists, workers in the area. By doing this, they're getting the feel of the neighbourhood, what people who live near Madiba are thinking. That's all.

There's no difference between doing that, and sending someone to a shopping centre to ask who they think will win the PSL this season. And, don't forget, like any other citizen, they have the right to look at the microphones, and refuse to speak. And that use of their right will be fully respected. There's no point for a journalist to force a German tourist to give her views on Robben Island.

The fact is, journalists are also doing their duty by covering this story. In this case, their duty is to get the latest facts to their audiences as quickly as possible.

And there is another element to this duty. Do not ever forget that the death of a political figure is in itself a political act. The death of Margaret Thatcher in the UK sparked a debate around her legacy, a decision to give her a ceremonial funeral sparked off another debate with implications for current politicians.

Now, before I make my next point, let me say this. It may surprise you, but it's true. I have huge sympathy with Mac Maharaj at the moment. I would not take his job this week if you gave me the moon and the stars. Not only do you have to deal with quite literally the world's media, but you also have to give regular updates on a man you whispered to in the cell next to yours on Robben Island. Whose life story you were one of the first in the world to read. This must just be awful for him.

Which is why, this time around, I think Maharaj has done a really good job. He's managed to control a story that is almost uncontrollable. He's given it dignity, and ensured that when there is information to give, it's been published quickly.

My point is, there is also a duty for journalists to ensure that the political act of dying is not manipulated by anyone. What comes from official channels does need to be interrogated. As it would with any other political announcement.

But in other countries this isn't always the case. In Malawi quite recently, the body of the quite dead President Bungu wa Mutharika was put on a plane to South Africa so that the announcement of his death could be delayed. This was for very base political reasons, of course. It was all about the political aims of those still living, in this case his quite delightful brother.

One final thing. None of the journalists I know are enjoying covering this story. No one is jumping out of bed in the morning and looking forward to their day outside a hospital. But they're covering it, professionally, because they know it needs to be done. Because it's their duty. 

Photo Caption: Journalists wait for news on the health of former South African President Nelson Mandela outside a Pretoria hospital, June 9, 2013. Mandela, who became a global symbol of triumph over adversity and South Africa's first black leader in 1994 after the defeat of apartheid, was hospitalised early on Saturday after his already frail health worsened.

Photo Source: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings


Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

Source: The Daily Maverick



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