Reporting on Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela frail photo

Frail Nelson Mandela is not being helped by the overzealous media

Nelson Mandela, Madiba, was hospitalised once again last month. His recurring lung infection appears to be getting worse and he is visibly frail. This article, however, is not about Madiba’s health. What is interesting, and rather less than savoury is the current media frenzy around him.

When one thinks of so-called ambulance-chasers, personal injury lawyers that scavenge accident victims in hospitals for clients, images of the lowest evolutionary rung of the legal profession come to mind. The last couple of weeks afforded many in the media industry to sink to the same level, if not deeper. At least ambulance-chasers aim to get something that would benefit their victims (in addition to themselves).

The scale of the travesty varies both by media company and reporter. They range from stand-offish, rather indifferent but respectful coverage by the BBC to an all-out sensationalist assault by the likes of the American CBS network. Ironically, it is Deborah Patta previously famous for eTV’s Third Degree that is aggressively covering for CBS, Mandela’s progress, or lack thereof.

Witnessing photographers and journalists scrambling around trying to get the last photo of Mandela alive, or the first one of him dead, makes one cringe. But this is in fact what they are waiting for. Mandela’s death is far from being a historic event – at least there is no indication or even reporting around what might happen in South Africa after his death… that might have provided a modicum of justification for the reporting frenzy.

The public, of course, have been all but swept up with the media hype. What is worse, is that conflicting reports, and likely many that have not been verified are capturing an unsuspecting audience. For example, Mbeki’s and current government officials’ statements about Mandela’s current condition appear to be miles apart from some media networks. They suggest he is weak but recovering. Patta and CBS on the other hand, claim that many of Mandela’s internal organs are operating at 50 percent, insinuating that the situation is very much touch and go.

“We’re told he hasn’t opened his eyes in days and is unresponsive. We also understand that Mandela family members are discussing just how much medical intervention is enough for an old and very sick man.” … Deborah Patta, CBS

And all this based on unnamed sources – hardly good, or even responsible journalism.

To a large extent, BBC’s Andrew Harding was quite right in his blog statement:

“We do not want to be lied to, but neither do we expect to be given private medical information. And so, when a US television network boldly declared this week that it had confirmed information about the state of Mr Mandela’s internal organs, we shook our heads, declined to re-Tweet, and understood the genuine, bitter fury of Mr Maharaj.” … Andrew Harding, BBC

In the end, the question of Madiba’s dignity is what is left hanging. Conflicting statements on his health, reporting on family squabbles and the like will certainly not add to what is a great man’s legacy.

Journalists have the responsibility to both respect privacy and individual dignity, whilst avoiding self-censorship of what they know to be true. That is a fine line and a subjective one at that. It is also the line that separates excellent journalists from the trash.

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Newsview would like to take this opportunity to thank Nelson Mandela and to wish him well. While it is unlikely that current events will tarnish his legacy, the editorial team hopes that media companies, both foreign and local, report responsibly and take cognisance of the importance of Nelson Mandela to the South African public.

Speaking of responsibility, readers who have checked out our updated South African online casino legal post or this in-depth article should be sure to gamble online responsibly. With the forthcoming elections in South Africa next year, Newsview will be doing a special feature on gambling of a completely different kind – the kind that Julius Malema is banking on to return to the South African political limelight.

Comparing SABC to the BBC

On a recent visit to the UK, I met a number of media companies and local journalists including a few members of the editorial team at the BBC. It was clear only minutes into the conversation that the issues facing the broadcasting industry there were significantly different from those the SABC are currently grappling with in South Africa. They were more future-focused and ranged from harnessing the opportunities brought about by technology changing journalism and interactivity, to how to manage a changing public demand for content.

In South Africa, the SABC’s key challenges appear to be almost exclusively internal. Between political bickering about news coverage, the evident SABC leadership crisis, exposed fraud and abundant corruption, there is little time to consider customer service and needs, let alone any thought leadership on the future of broadcasting. Of course, this is not to say that the BBC does not have its own internal leadership issues – it certainly does. However, the scale is different by an order of magnitude.

The broadcasting industry focus and public media attention in the UK lies more on equity, technological progress and quality of service. A quick glance at the BBC editor blogs will easily validate that. There is a substantial platform for interaction with the end customer – not only through the likes of World Have Your Say and the multitude of reporter blogs, but more directly so on BBC editorial content and general programming.

SABC photo

SABC head office – Johannesburg. Photo by Mike Powell.

In South Africa, you’d be hard pressed to find a place to voice similar opinions on the SABC, other than next to your water cooler at your own office. The fact that senior BBC editorial staff usually reply to many of the comments, concerns and feedback adds to the sense of customer focus that is so lacking at the SABC.

The recently published findings of forensic reports on the SABC shed more light on its lack of customer focus. It appears that the SABC leadership team are more concerned with self-enrichment and political positioning than with the job of broadcasting.

Consider the following findings in the SABC audit:

  1. “Irregular contracts” to the value of close to R200 Million (over US$23.5 Million) that were deemed by the SABC’s own internal audit team to have delivered “no significant value”
  2. Evidence of tender awards where there were clear conflicts of interest with the negotiating parties
  3. “Irregular expenditure” around sponsorship for events (a la ICT Indaba)
  4. Providing a politically connected family with free exposure worth millions for their newspaper, the New Age
  5. Hiring Hlaudi Motsoeneng as Chief Operating Officer after ignoring its own governance structures. This, incidently, is a person who had lied about twice failing high school matric.
  6. Appalling recruitment and due diligence practices including hiring the likes of Justice Ndaba who had forged 3 qualifications including an MBA to secure his position. To aggravate the situation he was allowed to continue working even after this was discovered!
  7. Last month, the SABC suspended its Chief Financial Officer, Gugu Duda for “procurement irregularities”.

When it comes to reporting, the question of the impartiality of the public broadcaster is always on the table. In this respect, the SABC is no different from the BBC. Locally however, the bias appears more explicitly. For example, the SABC was asked to avoid media coverage for local firebrand Julius Malema since he has become a thorn in the ruling ANC government’s side. Complying to this kind of direct request is unlikely to go down well in the UK. In South Africa however, it seems par for the course.

It is unfortunate that there is a complete lack of accountability at SABC. How can it then expect tax payers to cough up an additional R6 Billion (over US$700 Million) to fund a digital strategy when its house is in disarray and there is ample evidence of what can only be described as looting? When failing to meet 68% of a total of 89 goals set for the broadcaster constitutes an “overwhelming success”, what chance is there the SABC will come even close to anything like the BBC?

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You are not alone if you think that betting on the SABC pulling itself out of its current mess is like putting your faith in online gambling in South Africa or on the likes of this excellent website in the UK. Sadly, you probably stand better odds of success if you buy lottery tickets online and keep your fingers crossed. One can only hope that the South African public raise enough of an raucous about the SABC so that the government is forced to take stock and more importantly, action, to rectify the situation.

Stay tuned for our forthcoming editorials on interactive TV, social issues around human trafficking, online gambling legislation in South Africa and more.