i Editor's Letter: The darker side of the job


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One of the more morbid pastimes of a news editor – and there are a few – is the “major deaths” meeting.

When significant public figures acquire exceptional vintage, or fall seriously ill, it is prudent for a newspaper to commission appreciations from their biographers and friends in good time – such that their passing can be marked with suitable gravity and thought. Acquaintances may then ruminate at leisure upon the individual’s contribution to public life, rather than hurry out a tribute, after receiving the distressing news.

Each newspaper thus sits on a trove of commentary and anecdotes about household names who are deemed to be of particular interest to their readers.

Many of these figures live for years. When Margaret Thatcher died, one newspaper carried a front-page obituary written by her biographer – who had himself been dead a decade. The News of the World’s readers never got to see the glossy “RIP, Maggie” supplement.

Forget the media ghouls, though, for a moment. Nelson Mandela remains South Africa’s totem of unity and resolution, of forgiveness – the man who embraced Afrikaans culture to bridge the gulf with his jailers, and once elected president invited them to his first dinner. In bridging the racial divides in his own life he allowed a national community to develop.

His parting will leave a void in the idea of South African nationhood – and highlight the absence of equivalent moral leadership there now. Some younger factions want to return the rainbow nation to one of black and white.

Mandela wrote after his release: “I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

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