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Katy Katopodis: The M Plan

This is an edited excerpt from Katy Katopodis's book, 'I'm Missing News' When Hard News and Parenting Collide'.

The 'M Plan', as it has come to be known, is a highly confidential and detailed document that has been circulating for several years in our newsroom.

The potential activation of this plan has resulted in many a dash to the office or call to the newsroom.

It's our plan of action in the event that the death of Mandela happens on our watch. Whether or not we would even use it, it seemed like a good time during his recent hospitalisation to revisit that plan and go over our Madiba archives.

We pored over any and all Mandela-related material; we relistened to his famous speeches, cold shivers spiralling down our spines. We watched video footage of him meeting with kings and queens, singing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star to star-struck groups of children and enthralling thousands with his famous 'Madiba shuffle'.

We scanned the black and white photos of him as a young man, as a determined boxer, the few photos that were taken of him on Robben Island and the thousands taken after his release.

We split our Mandela stories into themes: the freedom fighter, the politician, the lawyer, the humanitarian, the husband, the father ... the grandfather of a nation.

We were preparing for the inevitable in December 2012, irrespective of what was to happen.

It may seem morbid, morose and unheard of for some, but it's a reality for any newsroom the world over; there is no room for error.

It's a difficult concept for non-journalists, who struggle to understand that such preparation, such attention to detail, is a basic requirement of the profession.

This behind-the-scenes-planning is also anathema to some in government. Over the years there have been many highly publicised meetings and fights between senior ministers and news editors. They've argued we're invading Mandela's privacy. We must stay away, they say. They will feed us the information they want us to have, when they want us to have it.

As editors, we stand on the opposite side of that fence, arguing that Mandela is a beloved public figure who belongs to all. We respect his dignity and don't want to invade his privacy, but we have a job to do. We have a story to tell.

We owe it to our listeners, readers and viewers to keep them updated, while accepting and agreeing that it will be from a distance.

Long may we not have to activate our M-plans and 'obits', because if one thing is certain it's that the passing of this man will leave a gaping hole in South Africa.

And when the time finally comes, I hope that we get it right. Not for us or our news teams, not for the government or even for the larger population that laments. My greatest hope is that we do it properly for him.

Out of respect for and in tribute to Nelson Mandela, I pray that we give him a proper send-off; that we tell his story of struggle and triumph, of darkness and light, in an authentic way that is true to who he was; that we pay our respects fittingly to a man who changed the course of history.

*

Postscript, 15 December 2013

And when it finally happened we were ready and we were waiting.

Our plans, all firmly in place from months before merely kicked into gear ... even if it was at the unexpected hour of midnight.

The team were in top form and like almost all South Africans on that first night nobody slept a wink. We always knew his death was imminent, but when it happened we were kept awake by the sheer magnitude of the event, and the adrenalin coursing through our veins.

But that was all to be expected, and we knew that the 10-day mourning period ahead would be a long road that we needed to travel as journalists and a nation that looked up to Tata.

I expected the adrenaline, I expected the long, gruelling hours, the lack of sleep, the copious amounts of coffee and the endless supply of chocolate and junk food as we were consumed with every element of Madiba's death.

What I didn't expect was the flood of emotion and how deeply I felt his passing.

I read the 12 and 1 o'clock bulletins on the day he was finally laid to rest in Qunu as the world said its final and beautiful farewell, and it was the hardest moment of my on-air career. I struggled, but managed to get through it without weeping on the radio.

The last line of my news script is what choked me up though as I read "Madiba has finally been laid to rest at home and the world has said its final goodbye to the father of the nation. And so ends Nelson Mandela's long walk to freedom."

It was an honour and a privilege to work and lead the phenomenal Eyewitness News team during this historic time in South Africa.

We have paid a very fitting tribute to Tata Mabida.

May he rest in the peace he gave us.