Nelson Mandela: BBC News Director Defends Coverage

Nelson Mandela, 1994

The head of the BBC's news department said the network was right to disrupt regular programming to announce the death of Mandela, whom he called "the most significant statesman of the last 100 years."

The head of BBC News has defended his network's decision to disrupt regularly scheduled programming last Thursday to announce the death of Nelson Mandela, after 850 viewers complained the BBC devoted too much airtime to the event.

Many of the complaints said the BBC spent too much time reflecting on the life of the man who became South Africa's first black president and not enough on news of the storms that battered Britain's eastern coast last week. Speaking on the BBC's Newswatch program, news director James Harding apologized to viewers who thought the storms weren't covered adequately but argued that Mandela's death was a singular news event that justified extensive reporting.

"The decision-making is one around the significance of Nelson Mandela," Harding said. "Nobody needs a lecture on his importance, but we are probably talking about the most important statesman, the most significant statesman, of the last 100 years, a man who defined freedom, justice, reconciliation, forgiveness. The importance of his life and marking his death seems extremely clear to us."

Some of the complaints sent to the BBC involved the network's decision to interrupt a repeat of its popular sitcom Mrs. Brown's Boys to announce Mandela's death. The sitcom, which was shown at 9:30 p.m. and interrupted shortly before 10, averaged some 2.8 million viewers on the BBC. The network's 10 p.m. bulletin, which led with Mandela's death and was doubled in length to an hour to accommodate extensive Mandela coverage, drew 5.1 million viewers.