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The Truth About Nelson and Me

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Some of the greatest journalism this country has ever produced can be found in the obituaries. Not just in the 'back of the book' history lessons that often tell the most extraordinary stories eloquently, concisely and captivatingly. But in the insightful personal tributes written by comment editors, politicians or assorted VIPs who knew their subject well.

These often brilliant articles told stories, added thoughtful context, focused on the who, why and what. Today - if the evidence of Nelson Mandela's sad passing is anything to go by - the focus is now on the me, me, me.

I've listened to, watched and read celebrities blithely talking about 'When I met Nelson he instantly recognised me', journalists who should know better discuss the time he 'bumped into me at a press conference and shook my hand like old friends', anyone who was vaguely in the vicinity of the man feels equipped to talk about 'how I felt moved in his presence'.

I really don't care about you. Sorry, but I don't. I care deeply for what Mandela endured, what he stood for, what he achieved and how his legacy might be destroyed. But you? Unless he really divulged personal anecdotes that might truly alter our impression of him ('What I really thought about the Spice Girls', that kind of thing), don't you think it's best to leave yourself out of this monumental story.

This all-consuming false selfism is a symptom of our digital interconnectedness. It's as if people with large numbers of Twitter followers, or with blogs and columns, think they're a story, or that they're somehow integral to the story.

At the same time as breaking down barriers, the web, by giving us all a soap box, has monstrously inflated our egos. Have an opinion, talk about yourself if you must, feel free to comment but don't put yourself at the centre of something you weren't even a part of.

It's highly probable that, if you were a part of it, it had the most infinitesimal effect on the person or events. It was meaningful - if that's the right word - only to you. That is what the internet has done. It has seemingly brought 'meaning' to people's lives - yet in actual fact it has done the opposite. It has replaced meaning, and sometimes emptiness, with a virtual veneer designed to elevate the trivial and insignificant.

I thought this morning of my own part in history and how I might record events when others pass away. The moment Muhammad Ali fixed me with his cold stare, beckoned me over and greeted me with a 'Hey champ, how are you man?' Or the time Brad Pitt shamelessly tried to steal my wife away from me by flirting with her, holding a restaurant door open and then letting it slam in my face. Or when Gary Barlow and I had a violent, drunken debate about the merits of Bob Dylan (I won). Or even perhaps the night Scarlett Johansson begged me to run away with her only to be left in floods of tears when I politely declined.

OK, so I made one of those up and exaggerated all the others. Just as countless people around the world are right now telling everyone about the moment they and Nelson met, what it meant to them and, worst of all, what it meant to Nelson. Self-aggrandising embellishment has replaced self-disciplined thoughtfulness.

The obituaries today, especially in our broadsheet newspapers, are some of the most inspiring, eye-opening and emotional pieces you'll read this year. Much of the rest, especially on the web, is utterly infantile in comparison.

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