When the footballing legend George Best died in 2005, as one might expect, there was huge media coverage. What bothered me more than this was the fact that, as he was hospitalised eight weeks before he died, in the run-up to his death we had almost daily bulletins telling us,in effect, “he’s nearly dead.” This lengthy drum roll which lead to the inevitable announcement seemed to me to be in poor taste and to serve no purpose. Best’s death was untimely, (he was 56 when he died) but his alcoholism meant a premature death was a certainty. Now the same press vultures are circling around the hospital in which Nelson Mandela, at 94 years old, is being treated whilst his health deteriorates.Each news bulletin for days now includes an update on Mandela’s health, they are all basically saying “he’s not dead yet” or “can’t be long now” but what is the point of all of this; surely the public only need to know when he has been admitted to hospital and when he has either left or died; all this stuff in the interim is just ghoulish. Mandela’s eldest daughter has spoken out against the press. She told South Africa’s state broadcaster SABC: “The fact that my dad is a global icon… does not mean that people can’t respect [his] privacy and dignity.She described the media as a “nuisance” and said the coverage had gone “overboard”. She said: “It is like truly vultures. Waiting when the lion has devoured the buffalo. Waiting there for the last carcass.”
The media industry loves a dead celebrity; you only have to think about the relentless coverage of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales which went on for months. Similarly, the sudden death of Michael Jackson was given high profile media coverage for many weeks afterwards. The simple and rather morbid fact is that these deaths sell papers:even in the United States, the Diana effect was apparent- Time’s first issue about Diana’s death had newsstand sales of about 850,000–650,000 more than normal.The commemorative edition sold about 1.2 million copies. They are the two largest sellers in the history of the magazine. Internationally, newspaper sales rose phenomenally, “A big Diana story could add 150,000 sales,” admitted one editor. Diana’s death engendered more column inches in Britain’s largest newspapers than the most dramatic stages of World War II. Her funeral, broadcast to 180 countries, attracted history’s largest television audience.
Many have no issues with the way that the media cover stories of dead or dying famous people; with the rise of celebrity culture, there is a certain inevitability that there will be great interest when these lives are over. My problem is that it is indulging a prurient excitement in readers as well as whipping up a false grief over a person who readers of the newspapers didn’t really know at all.The sense of loss is made to feel like that of a friend or family member when in truth is that these are individuals whom one has paid to see or who have been frequent televised “guests” in one’s home. The media play to this unreal relationship which is why the journalists are waiting outside the hospital in Pretoria waiting, as if they are people who care, for news of the demise of Nelson Mandela.