Different approaches to Mandela’s health

UPDATED: US network CBS is going all out on Nelson Mandela’s health, saying their information contradicts what officials are saying, while others – like the BBC – say they do not want such details and are treating their American rivals with disdain.

There are interesting differences in approach. The CBS coverage comes from Deborah Patta, who recently left eTV’s Third Degree programme where she became know for her aggressive interviewing. Now she is back in the field, doing aggressive reporting, with graphic details.

“What CBS News is hearing is completely at odds with statements from (former President Thabo) Mbeki. Sources tell us that Mandela’s liver and kidneys are functioning at 50 percent, and he had a procedure to repair a bleeding ulcer and another one to insert a tube.” That’s a bit too much information for me, Ms Patta.

She added: “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.”

She also claimed that Mandela had cardiac arrest on the night recently when his ambulance was stuck on the side of the road for 40 minutes. Officials confirmed the ambulance had broken down but said it did not compromise his care.

Patta attritubes this information only to unnamed sources and “what CBS is hearing”.

The BBC ran a blog sneering at their American rival. “We do not want to be lied to, but neither do we expect to be given private medical information,” correspondent Andrew Harding wrote. “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 (presidential spokesperson) Mr (Mac) Maharaj.”

Mandela’s health “is an intensely personal issue for many of those now involved in the distressing task of managing the flow of information from a Pretoria hospital bed, to a waiting world”, Harding said.

BBC is treating Mandela like they would their queen, worthy of special protection. The more hard-nosed CBS gives everyone the sordid details they would if it was their own president.

I am sure they view Harding’s blog as displaying the kind of pomposity they would expect of Aunty-Beeb.

The BBC later posted a further piece, modifying its position. Mike Wooldridge, BBC Correspondent, wrote: “The need to respect Mr Mandela’s dignity is widely recognised. But the government knows public trust is at stake too.” That’s more like it, Auntie Beeb.

It is a classic ethical conflict: journalists wants to be sensitive to a person’s privacy and dignity, but at the same time one has the duty to tell people what one knows and avoid self-censorship. Most of all, though, one is obliged to challenge the authorities if one suspects they are being dishonest. I suspect that the ethical route lies somewhere between CBS’s sordid details and BBC’s original aloofness. A journo’s first obligation is to the truth, not to protect the powerful.

Interestingly, South African news operations are hiding behind their international colleagues on this one. They would be lambasted if they did not show the utmost respect for Mandela’s privacy, making it always likely that they will leave their international colleagues to make the running on this. News24 started by carrying the official denial of the CBS story as a way to get into it. M&G online was reporting that CBS is reporting it.

By Sunday morning, the local were using the CBS report to call into question the government version. Are the authorities telling us the truth about Mandela?

*Updated June 23

4 thoughts on “Different approaches to Mandela’s health

  1. Some of our SA journalists are relying on the fact that Patta is South African for avoiding the question why we needed to rely on an foreign news agency to break Mandela’s ambulance fiasco. Strangely Patta describes herself on her twitter profile as a “foreign correspondent” and not a SA journalist. It seems everyone is on edge in SA about reporting on Mandela.

  2. No government spokesperson, in my mind, is credible, on any issue. It appears with ANC officials that the public needs to be protected in some way from any “horrible truth”, much how the Soviets would lie about the condition of Mr Brezhnev. Speculation in the latter’s case went as far as suggesting that his corpse would be held up at military parades. It is this patronizing, irritating and juvenile approach by the likes of Mr. Mtembu and Mr. Maharaj that is vile.

    Please keep the public informed of the facts, not what you think we should hear. But then again journalism is a daunting career having to run many gauntlets and serve many masters, the truth being but one of them.

  3. It is one thing to release information with the consent of a patient, quite another to invade their medical records while they are ill.

    Please provide an example where a US president’s detailed medical records have been revealed, *without* their consent.

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