Inside the News with Peter Mansbridge

Last Updated: Aug 8, 2013 11:16 AM ET

Nelson Mandela

A shop selling commemorative Nelson Mandela memoribilia in Johannesburg, South Africa Tuesday, June 11, 2013. (Ben Curtis/Associated Press)

Many of you have said you find this site interesting because it occasionally gives you a sense of what actually happens inside a newsroom. Well strap yourselves in. This is one of those weeks and some of you may find this difficult to accept.

One of the questions I'm asked most often is, "What time do you tape the news?"

Actually, the news is done "live" every night for the first edition of The National seen in Atlantic Canada on CBC Television and across the country on CBC News Network. It's then updated for new developments, changes in graphics or, most often, fixing my stumbles for the second edition. And then, barring any sudden new story, most of us go home and that second edition version is rebroadcast through each region, all six time zones, of the country.   

Now every few weeks news will dictate that the National be broadcast "live" every hour. That's on nights when a major story is changing each hour. Say on the night of an election that we're interested in and that could be federal, provincial or foreign. Or a major disaster like a flood, a tornado or an earthquake. We don't want to air an out-of-date National in any part of the country.

And then there are nights like this week when we babysit the program through all hours because we're expecting a major story could change at any moment. We don't know that it will, but we think there's a very good possibility that it might. And that's what I want to tell you about.

I'm writing this on the night of Tuesday, June 11. The first edition went fine with great reporting from Sasa Petricic on the chaos in Turkey followed by a good solid Turning Point panel on the bleak picture that is the wider Middle East these days.

Watch Turning Point

There were a few minor changes needed for the second edition and now we're into babysitting mode. It's after midnight. I'm sitting at my desk in my office just down the hall from the studio. All the crew from the studio floor, from the control room and all the editors and producers of the program are still here as well. We're all waiting for the same thing.

We're waiting for Nelson Mandela to die.

Former South African president Nelson Mandela. (File/Associated Press)

I know. That sounds horrible. But that's the cold hard truth and across the news business, people are doing the same thing.

We all have to be prepared. So newsrooms on every media platform have, close at hand, prepared obituaries on the former South African president who is so revered around the globe.  We have two obits ready - a short one that's news length, and a longer one that would run in the second half of the program. We have guests lined up and willing to be woken up at any hour. Some of those guests we've been talking to for months about this possibility. 

It's an odd feeling booking a guest on the basis that someone might die. It's never an easy conversation to have but for the most part people understand. They certainly have understood on this story because they all want to be able to comment on the passing of a titan.

So everything is in order, everything is at the ready.   

What we don't have is the story. All indications coming from Pretoria at this moment are that the 94-year-old Mandela is close to death. We, like all the other networks, already know how the news will be released and what the funeral plans are because South African officials have been briefing journalists for months on how the story will unfold after death comes. But that moment has not arrived, not yet. And we're now into the fourth night of this.

I remember in the early 1980's when we first decided that we should be "ready" in case the Queen Mother passed away. She'd been hospitalized for an illness and like a lot of others, we felt it was appropriate to ensure our obituaries were up to date. So we did. And we kept updating them for another twenty years before we needed to use them.

So these are awkward times around many newsrooms and you can probably imagine the various emotions most journalists in this kind of nightly wait are facing. No one wants anyone to die, but no one really wants to sit waiting for someone to die either.  


As of 9 a.m. today, Thursday, June 13 the story has changed since Tuesday night's writing.  Mandela is said to be "responding to treatment." Even those close to the family, while clearly relieved, still seem a bit surprised that things have taken a turn for the better. It seems they've been on standby too. Perhaps we've all forgotten this is a man who survived 27 years in prison, came out walking down a chosen road with energy and conviction. He never wavered in his determination to lead his country to a fair and just future.  And clearly now, he wants a few more days to keep up that pressure. 

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