Pulling Mandela book a faulty act of censorship
Unusual decision to withdraw biography was based on family pressure and not legal contraventions
Mandela’s Last Years, written by retired military doctor Vejay Ramlakan, has become sought after since its publisher Penguin Random House SA withdrew it from the shelves in July. Ramlakan was the head of the medical team that looked after Nelson Mandela until his death in 2013.
The withdrawing and pulping of a book is a huge expense for a publisher, as well as a source of some embarrassment. So, why did the publisher do it?
Soon after the book was published, members of the Mandela family, led by the former president’s widow Graça Machel, threatened legal action.
The basis for any action wasn’t clear, although it was probably linked to defamation. The book, Machel argued, constituted "an assault on the trust and dignity" of her late husband.
Soon afterwards, Ramlakan’s employer, the South African National Defence Force, distanced itself from the book, suggesting it may have contravened doctor-patient confidentiality.
Penguin SA bowed to this pressure and withdrew the book, stating that no further copies would be issued out of respect for the family. This is almost unprecedented anywhere and needs to be teased out more fully.
After reading the book, I’ve considered how and why the publisher may have come to this decision. The decision-making process for a publisher in a case such as the Mandela book revolves around balancing the potential costs against reputational damage.
The costs can be extensive – in publishing, all costs relating to editing, design, production, printing and distribution are made upfront.
It is relatively easy to make a decision to withdraw a book after publication when it may have contravened the law, mostly due to defamation.
Books may also be withdrawn after allegations of plagiarism or because the accuracy of the content has been called into question. Publishers sometimes cancel contracts with their authors based on the standard waivers dealing with defamation and inaccuracies.
Publishers try to avoid these kinds of situations by performing due diligence to see if manuscripts contain anything defamatory or that breaches privacy. They employ fact checkers to avoid inaccuracy. And they require authors to warrant their work is original and accurate.
This doesn’t mean errors don’t sometimes slip through. But it is very unusual for a book to be withdrawn simply because it’s controversial. In fact, publishers usually support controversial titles because they create publicity, and publicity generally leads to sales.
So, what happened in this case? The first set of questions would relate to the credibility of the author and the publisher’s relationship with him.
Ramlakan was the head of Mandela’s medical team and had unique access to the former president. This means he certainly had the authority to write the book, and as far as I know, nobody is questioning its accuracy. This is important because truthfulness is one of the main defences against defamation
It seems highly unlikely that a publisher would allow a nonfiction title to include material that is patently untrue or that would harm the reputation of a man such as Mandela.
Linked to the question of authority is whether the work was authorised. The author has repeatedly claimed he wrote the book at the request of family members, with their permission. In such a large family, it would be difficult to obtain permission from every family member and it is quite common for family members to protest against their treatment in a biography of a public figure.
ONE PURPOSE OF THE BOOK WAS TO COUNTER THE RUMOURS AROUND MANDELA’S MEDICAL CONDITION.
Family members often argue that there has been a breach of privacy or that embarrassing private details about them have been made public. However, the truth is that their authorisation is not actually necessary.
Many authors write unauthorised biographies or memoirs, and while they may prove to be controversial, they certainly do not contravene the law.
The variety of books already available on Mandela shows that there is continuing public interest. It seems unlikely that each one of them was authorised by the family.
What complicates this scenario is that, as a medical doctor, Ramlakan is also expected to uphold ethical standards that an ordinary writer wouldn’t be subject to. I am not an expert in medical ethics, but there are very few medical details in the book that are not already in the public domain.
In fact, one of the purposes of the book was to counter the rumours around Mandela’s medical condition in the last years and months of his life.
It does this by quietly countering inaccurate statements and setting out the bare facts. Ramlakan appears to have made a deliberate effort to avoid breaching confidentiality and ended up writing a very respectful book.
Some have suggested the publisher and author were trying to cash in on the Mandela legacy. Whatever their motives, they shouldn’t be the basis for withdrawing a book from circulation. Taste and motivation are not legal issues.
Given that there is no apparent material basis for a legal attack on the book, its withdrawal reveals self-censorship on the part of the publisher.
SA no longer has censorship laws in place, but an influential family can bring pressure to bear that amounts to the same thing. But given that the book was already on the market, it should be asked what the effect of the withdrawal will be.
While fewer copies will be sold in shops and fewer people will have access to it, it’s not possible to entirely withdraw a book from the online market.
The book reviews already mention all of the most controversial parts of the book and the action of withdrawal only serves to highlight them.
The best course of action would be to allow the book to circulate freely and to stand – or fall – on its own merits. Anything else is censorship.
• Le Roux is an associate professor of publishing at the University of Pretoria. This article first appeared on www.theconversation.com