Repetition, not veracity, was my gripe with this week's Mandela mourning | Ian Jack

My distrust of being told what to think and feel by the media has made the unrelenting Mandela fest hard to bear

When Nelson Mandela is buried tomorrow, there may at last be some respite. Ten days of mourning will have passed – or not so much mourning as a festival of remembrance of unparalleled duration in which we woke up to Mandela and fell asleep to Mandela and in the hours between visited Mandela at regular intervals; hours in which political and other kinds of celebrities spoke about the Mandela they had known and reporters approached anonymous South Africans in the street to ask what he meant to them, or (the Queen's default question to the individual in the crowd) how far they had travelled to be there.

As his death had been long expected, all the logistics were in place. The archives had been mined, the great old man's friends and former enemies interviewed, the obituaries revised and made ready to go. The media can have given few people a more tender send-off; one where reflections on the dead person's extraordinary character and achievement went unruffled by the mystery and violence of how he or she had died – see for contrast the deaths of Gandhi, Kennedy and Diana, Princess of Wales, which took everyone unawares and were therefore three of the biggest news stories of the last century. Mandela was 95 and had been close to death for weeks. No surprise that he finally went, or that his obsequies were so well crafted, time being the great preparer. But once the coverage had started, it seemed that no newspaper or radio or TV channel wanted it to stop.

How do these things get decided? Do news organisations instantly gather consumers into focus groups to ask them how much more they want to hear about X or Y? Thankfully, no, though in the past newspapers have used market research to establish the kind of stories people did and didn't read (concluding, for example, that the postwar Daily Mirror's readership preferred stories about dogs to those about cats, or perhaps vice versa, according to the late Hugh Cudlipp). The process is governed instead by editorial instinct, where the hierarchy of news is decided by what editors find interesting and important and believe will match their audiences' expectations of the same. All kinds of cultural bias are at work, and as a record of events it can be extremely idiosyncratic. The 54 people who died last month beneath a collapsed supermarket roof in Latvia attracted far less attention in BBC bulletins than a train derailment in New York that killed four. But these inevitable imperfections have been with us ever since the news-sheets of the 18th century. A more recent development, borrowed by the "quality" media from the popular press, is the priority given to  news that can be treated sentimentally, which can have Fiona Bruce dipping her voice and shaking her head on the 10 o'clock bulletin, which instructs us to feel as much as to think.

To ignore this instruction, to feel less or differently than the news asks us to, can be a lonely experience. In the week before the funeral of Diana, the media both reflected and encouraged the mood of the tearful crowd in The Mall and more or less put the country under a three-line whip to grieve. Dissenters to this mood got no airtime or newspaper space, and yet in one's own life (as I wrote soon after) it was difficult to meet people who fully shared the emotion that we were meant to feel. A few letters appeared in newspapers that indicated a different kind of community – the people who didn't feel quite sad enough – from the mourners who filled the screen. I went to interview each of them for a Granta piece, and what shines through 16 years later is their sane defiance of an emotional climate that the media had endorsed, strengthened and expanded.

"I heard it several times, people saying. 'Oh, it was just like a member of my family dying.' What on earth were these people talking about?" said a music student whose parents had been killed recently in a car crash. "We kept being told that the country was united, which it was in the sense we were all watching the same television programme," said an Oxford academic. "But in any other sense – that divisions of class and race were being healed, for example – well, it's crap, obviously." A public relations man said that when "the touchy-feely fascists got to work … it began to seem that not to have unqualified grief was a heresy".

In a Bristol suburb I met a retired chemical engineer, Ron Press, whose letter to the Guardian described the Diana coverage as "intolerable". He turned out to be a lifelong ANC activist who quit South Africa in 1962 for his family's sake and now, as a man for whom no single person had "ever epitomised everything that was important", despaired of the "fever and unreality" that infused ordinary perceptions of the famous. The ANC, he remembered, was a "rational, reasonable organisation – but I know that when Nelson Mandela dies it'll be the same. Wailing in the streets, tears. OK, Nelson's a good bloke and a clever politician, but … he's only one man and I think unreasonable bowing-down is very anti-democratic."

There spoke a disbeliever in the Great Man theory of history – perhaps unreasonably in Mandela's case, because at a certain juncture in South Africa's history he really did set the course of his country's future (his critics would say, not necessarily for its long-term good). Still, I knew what Press meant, having been brought up by parents in whom the events of the early 20th century had bred a similar disbelief, whether in the vices of the Kaiser or the virtues of Lloyd George or almost anyone else that the newspapers of their childhood had declared a hero or villain. If the history of popular skepticism ever comes to be written, perhaps titled Never Believe What You Read in a Newspaper, it might begin here in the first world war and the kind of journalism that amounted to nothing less than outrageous lying.

I suspect that this distrusting inheritance has somehow impeded my own ability to enjoy the media's Mandela fest; a shortcoming, which is how I sometimes think of it, that may well have origins in someone else discovering the truth about Stalin or the Somme. But with Mandela, repetition rather than veracity has been the problem. To be told for more than a week that someone is good is alienating to the modern temperament, never mind the procession of politicians, plus Bono, who were so anxious to show that they knew goodness when they saw it. The half-empty stadium, the Danish prime minister's selfie, the signer for the deaf who was making it up, the booing of Zuma: who can deny that these regrettable aspects of the memorial service didn't cheer us up? Not because they damaged Mandela's reputation, which they didn't at all, but because they were unpredicted and disobliged a media that until then was ordering us what to feel.


Ian Jack

The GuardianTramp

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