The debate around the Cape Times’ decision to cover Madiba’s death in a wraparound format is an interesting journalistic one. However, as an excuse to fire a respected, principled editor who like almost all of us, holds a very special place for the father of our nation in her heart, it is laughable.
And to give credence to the suggestion that this paper’s coverage was an affront to Mandela’s legacy – purely on the basis of its format as a wraparound – is as insulting as it is ludicrous.
Yet, this is the strange new narrative that is emerging. It is sidetracking us from the public controversy that erupted when Alide Dasnois was fired as editor of the Cape Times, the day after Nelson Mandela died on the evening of December 5.
I have refrained from weighing in publicly for professional reasons. To his credit, the new editor, Gasant Abarder, bent over backwards to give everybody a voice in the debate, before closing correspondence on the matter at the end of December. But this hiatus was broken this week with the publication of an article on these pages. It served to thrust the issue back into the public domain, where questions are being raised about our coverage and, bizarrely, our intent on the night Madiba died.
It would be undignified to enter into a slanging match about what happened in the newsroom on the night Madiba died. It is also not up to me, but up to Dasnois to explain her decisions as editor on the night in question, something which I am sure she will do when her case is heard at the CCMA on Friday.
But as the debate shifts to questions around whether or not the front page should have been changed on the night in question instead of a separate four-page dedicated special edition, I feel the need to remind people about a few issues and facts to protect the credibility of this paper, and the people who work here, many of whom feel conflicted and under scrutiny.
Firstly, the four-page edition that was produced at lightning speed from around midnight was recognised by Time as one of the 14 best front covers in the world.
Secondly, it was not a standard wraparound containing copy planned months in advance. This is a crucial point for me, as head of news of the paper. The mini-paper contained all the breaking news and photographs of the news that night. Page 1 was a photo tribute. Pages 2 and 3 contained President Jacob Zuma’s address to the nation, a comprehensive lead story with last-minute updates on the outpouring of emotion outside Mandela’s house and reaction, plus photos, a prayer from Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, and tributes as they poured into the newsroom from midnight. It included a leader written by Dasnois in tribute to Madiba, and an illustrated timeline by graphic artist Mugamad Jacobs. Page 4 contained tributes from Thabo Mbeki, and a shorter one to anchor the page by FW de Klerk, which landed in news editor A’eysha Kassiem’s inbox after midnight.
Thirdly, if there was any disappointment, it was that because of printing and distribution problems; the wraparound was carried as an insert in some papers, and worse, not at all in a few others. These glitches require further investigation, but if anything, it reveals that the wraparound decision was certainly not a half-hearted measure, but an ambitious one at Cinderella hour.
Fourthly, inside the wraparound was a front-page story on the public protector’s findings that Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson was guilty of maladministration, improper and unethical conduct in the awarding of an R800 million fishing tender deal involving the Sekunjalo consortium, which is owned by the paper’s new owner, Dr Iqbal Survé. This paper was issued with a demand to apologise for the report on the front page, or face legal or other action. To date, the matter remains in the air.
The editor was fired by Survé hours after the newspaper hit the streets, and removed from a massive story.
It left the newsroom stunned, rudderless and in turmoil. For instance, Dasnois was key point person for the national coverage of the Madiba story, which thanks to the merciless budget cuts by the previous owners, had to be co-ordinated at group level.
Thanks to the professionalism of the editorial team we put our heads down diligently out of respect for Mandela during the 10 days of mourning. We delivered quality coverage not only in print, but on the web and via social media.
But it has been hard not to feel affronted by the interference from management at this momentous, emotionally charged time. The question really is: what was so urgent that action needed to be taken against an editor of impeccable standing the day after Mandela died?
If any act was an affront to Mandela’s dignity, it was that Dasnois was fired while the country and the world was in mourning and we in the newsroom were in the midst of covering the biggest story in South Africa since 1994.
But Dasnois’s leader on Page 3 reminds us that “Mandela represents the best in all of us, which is why we have been so afraid to let him go”.
Hard as it may be, it is these characteristics that we need now to build this newspaper and keep its proud traditions alive.
l Heard is assistant editor and head of news at the Cape Times