How ReadDillon helped the BBC do justice to Mandela’s funeral

January 21, 2014

Death has its challenges, but planning for the BBC global broadcast of the funeral of Nelson Mandela had more than most.

Having served as special adviser to the BBC since the time of the first democratic elections and inauguration of President Mandela in 1994, my consultancy was to provide background research, secure VIP guests and assist broadcast doyen David Dimbleby with real-time (earpiece) input throughout the major events.

Working with Dimbleby and arguably the cream of the BBC special events team teaches one much about planning, accuracy and thoroughness.

Unlike royal weddings, elections or the Olympic Games, funerals present the unique challenge to broadcasters of uncertain timing. The identification of which funerals to cover is relatively easy: royalty, the Pope, some prime ministers, presidents and other global figures.

Mandela was arguably the last of the 20th century figures whose passing would demand global coverage. But how do you plan and execute this and how do you do justice to somebody who has taken on beatification qualities?

It made most sense to try to split Mandela’s life into periods, but this in itself presented a challenge given his longevity. Mandela was born at the end of the First World War and died just short of South Africa’s 20th year of democracy. This is a long, colourful and complex tapestry to capture in just a few hours of broadcasting.

For the purposes of programming we split Mandela’s life into five periods: his rural upbringing, his political awakening and activism, his period of imprisonment, his presidency and life after his presidency.

A major challenge was to identify and locate anybody still alive who knew Mandela during his early years. Identifying, locating and interviewing people from Mandela’s rural home required on-site visits, the sensitivity of an anthropologist, diplomatic skills, humility and patience. None came naturally.

The second challenge was to identify VIP guests who had a personal relationship with Mandela, and who could talk at times intimately about their experiences with him.

In particular, our challenge was to identify authentic people, but who were identifiable by a British and indeed international audience. The Mandela family and those closest to him were understandably the most difficult to contact, meet and interview.

Furthermore, the Mandela family tree has many branches, both deep and shallow roots, and a not insignificant number of people trying to harvest its fruit. Understandably, but frustratingly and disappointingly, dealing with some of the family can be problematic.

The professional challenge was to secure VIP guests in an environment of intensive broadcaster competition, while remaining sensitive to the moment and indeed the personal feelings of those who were grieving their loss. There is no key to this, but there were two or three factors that helped.

The first was to build trust and credibility with the potential VIP guests over years before Mandela’s passing. In some cases, we built relationships over decades and others far more recently.

The second was to provide the assurance that no interviews or publicity would take place before Mandela’s death. We stuck to this guarantee assiduously.

The third was to try to make the programming meaningful for our guests. For example, in the case of former cricket chief, Dr Ali Bacher, we prepared our research to discuss the importance of sport to Mandela and his role in bringing together disparate viewpoints through his love for, and support of, sporting codes in South Africa.

In the case of the former partner of the late Steve Biko, Dr Mamphela Ramphele, we formulated our research and questions about the internal struggle, suffering, personal loss, reconciliation and forgiveness.

At one point near the end of one of our broadcasts, I asked Dimbleby through his earpiece to ask the guests when they last saw Madiba. This seemed like the right thing at the time to bring out the most personal feelings to our global audience, but on reflection it may have been a mistake.

As the wonderful, inimitable and unique human rights lawyer George Bizos answered the question, he recalled that even as Madiba was lying in bed, never to recover, he called out to him not to forget his coat when he left lest he catch a cold from the chilly night air. As Bizos recollected this final meeting, a lifetime of friendship, comradeship, struggle, victory and now loss all call came flooding back and reduced the great man to tears.

With immediate sensitivity the BBC producer quickly called for the camera angle to be pulled back and to go to a wide shot in order to “give George the dignity he is due”. I shall never forget that moment. It could not have been scripted.

Tim Hughes is founder-director of