I WAS in New York City at about the time that former International Monetary Fund boss Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) was receiving media attention for the alleged sexual assault and attempted rape of Nafissatou Diallo, a maid working at the Sofitel New York Hotel.
This was a story made for the modern, frenetic news media, and boy did they go to town on it. I spent some time in my hotel room flipping between news channels, and they all carried the story as their lead for days. Each channel — and there were dozens — flashed images of DSK’s grim face, and the hotel front door, and later: images of Diallo.
When they were not showing the same looped shot of DSK getting into a car, they had marathons of men with obscure titles and perfect teeth answering questions fired rapidly at them by waxen anchors who all wanted to know things that the pundits couldn’t possibly know. And yet, there they were, rabbiting on about the possible culpability of the French politician, and how the immigrant status of the maid perhaps made her a liar.
It was the kind of shrill, breathless reportage that would set anyone who was used to a diet of SABC, eNCA, BBC News and Al-Jazeera on edge. Truth and sincerity, never mind temperance in the face of such a serious matter, were sacrificed on the altar of audience numbers.
It was inevitable that former president Nelson Mandela would get much of the same treatment. He is, after all, perhaps the last remaining global icon and is as much a news story in Johannesburg as in New York or Hong Kong or London. Culture clashes were inevitable.
Over the years, the focus has been on attempts by the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, the African National Congress and the family to control the flow of information.
In January 2011, he was admitted to hospital, and the authorities remained eerily silent on the news. Over the course of about three days, we observed a full-blown media meltdown as people tried to find out information. We all learnt a lesson — the Presidency became the only official channel for communicating Madiba health news, and the authorities generally promised to keep the public updated. It is not a promise that has been kept at all times.
The local press is often accused (by the government and by the public) of reporting cynically and negatively about the government. This is true. Except where it concerns Mandela. In 2011, the press and the government agreed certain communication norms (which have subsequently been flouted by both sides) and since then what has been reported has largely been exactly what the Presidency has told us. This has been true even when it seemed like the official line was a pack of fibs.
Some have chosen to interpret this as some form of timidity or fear of the government on the part of the local press. They obviously know nothing of the fearless investigative reporting that our newspapers publish. Parachute journalism will do that.
In my view, this is why the colourful scoops about Mandela’s health have tended to come from the foreign press. The latest scoop, which revealed that the ambulance carrying the former president broke down en route to the hospital, came from CBS News. Another exclusive, this time quoting a daughter, came from CNN.
Like many of my colleagues, I don’t think that we should be privy to every last possible detail about Mandela’s health. The Presidency could do a better job of keeping us updated by releasing whatever information it has quickly, but we do not need to know exactly what is happening.
The indications are that uTata is almost at the end of his innings. If the press is to pretend to have any respect at all, then we must place the concerns of the family and the man himself uppermost in our minds. It is scary that the ambulance transporting him broke down, but it seems improbable that his life was imperilled as a result. If it wasn’t, then is that news at all? Should we be upset that Mac Maharaj didn’t tell us, and we had to wait for Debora Patta to find out via other sources? No.
If the way the media reports on Mandela is causing tension in the public sphere, it is certainly nothing compared to the tensions it is causing between journalists. This is not an easy story to report on, and getting it wrong means offending a great many people. Our automatic distrust of the government isn’t licence to forget what the true purpose of this circus is. It isn’t to violate the dignity of a great man and his family.
On Monday, President Jacob Zuma pulled off a brilliant coup — he used the media circus described above to gain a good election foothold. After reporting that Mandela’s health had become critical (very strong language from the Presidency, which naturally sent everyone into a mini panic) he suddenly threw open what was supposed to be a private briefing with the Foreign Correspondents’ Association. And instead of delivering the information that we expected he would, he made an election stump speech. He talked up ANC achievements in the government, and the National Development Plan. He laughed at Agang South Africa. He did this knowing that the whole world was tuned in. Somewhat dubious, yes. But very smart in the game of politics.
Helen Zille must be fuming.