The world’s oldest Sunday newspaper turned 220 yesterday. To mark the occasion, The Observer published a retrospective which included suggesting it saved Nelson Mandela’s life. A touch of hubris? By REBECCA DAVIS.
Former editor David Astor took the reins at the British newspaper the same year the National Party took power in South Africa, 1948. He edited the paper for the next 27 years and died a decade ago. Under Astor’s leadership, the newspaper became renowned for championing human rights. Yesterday, to commemorate its 220th birthday, The Observer published a piece reviewing Astor’s achievements. Citing successes such as the paper’s involvement in the establishment of Amnesty International, “But even these gargantuan successes pale when placed next to the role the paper played in fighting apartheid throughout the second half of the last century”.
The paper’s key contribution, it claims, was in keeping the world’s eyes trained on the Rivonia Trial. It quotes Shaun Johnson, currently CEO of the Mandela-Rhodes Foundation, “I believe that if the Rivonia trial had taken place without the world’s media covering it, then it is possible that the apartheid government would have hanged the trialists.”
This is no doubt true, and on Astor’s death Mandela reiterated his appreciation of the paper’s coverage: “The Observer supported the African National Congress from the early years of apartheid”. It does seem like something of a stretch to move from this point to claiming credit for saving Nelson Mandela’s life, however. But the paper has an unusual supporter in this claim: Winnie Madikizela Mandela, who told The Observer earlier this year categorically that “It was The Observer that saved the leadership of the ANC”. Far be it from us to quibble with Winnie. DM
- Did former Observer editor David Astor save Nelson Mandela's life?, in the Observer.