Oscar Pistorius in court. Photo: Getty
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After Pistorius, South African media won't be the same again

With cameras in court, new 24/7 news channels and no-holds-barred commentary on social media, the trial of Oscar Pistorius has shaken up the South African media.

The murder trial of Oscar Pistorius is changing South Africa’s media ecology. It is the country’s first criminal trial to be covered fully on social media and live television, and both journalists and judges have had to learn new rules and practices on the fly.

Previously, we have had television cameras covering the high-level legal debate of our Constitutional Court and the occasional judgement in a major case of national important or commission of inquiry. But a precedent was set when it was ruled in this case that almost all of it could be broadcast live. Only “private”, non-expert, witnesses could opt out of the television coverage, though their audio would still be run live.

This was a step forward for the notion of open justice, though there was also some backtracking when an irritated judge stopped all coverage during the presentation of post mortem results (which have previously been public documents), including tweeting from the court. She had to quickly backtrack on the Twitter ban, when it became obvious that she had not understood the difficulty of containing social media.

Media explosion

South Africa has three new 24/7 news channels, as well as one pop-up TV channel and one pop-up radio channel, the latter two created especially for the Pistorius trial. This has led to unprecedented levels of coverage, as well as analysis and debate on every aspect of the procedure and evidence.

Flip between talk radio and live television and you will hear analysts and commentators dissecting on every aspect of the trial. Much of it is trivia about Pistorius’ every gesture, but there is also discussion about the legal procedure, the meaning of evidence and the performance of the teams of lawyers.

British viewers would be surprised at some of the discussion, with senior legal figures commenting on the performance of witnesses and interpreting evidence with little restraint.

It appears that there are few rules and restrictions. South African law has been relaxed in this regard, with a Constitutional Court ruling in 2007 that media could only be in contempt of court if: “the prejudice that the publication might cause to the administration of justice is demonstrable and substantial and there is a real risk that the prejudice will occur if publication takes place”.

This has opened wide the door to commentary and speculation, especially in the absence of a jury system. The free-for-all which has followed has raised the question of whether this has served the public well.

Better informed

Dunstan Mlambo, the judge who allowed the cameras into the Pistorius court argued that it would educate the public on the finer points of the justice system and demonstrate that all are treated equally before the law.

There can be little doubt that many South Africans are now much better informed about the workings of the courts, and the realisation that it is much more tedious and complicated than the television dramas which usually dominate our screens. If the purpose was to get South Africans engaged in issues of the law and justice system, it has been a roaring success.

Less clear is whether the judge was right that South Africans would see a display of equal treatment before the law. On show is very clearly a rich person’s justice and the fact that a major court case will bankrupt even the well-off. What we are seeing on our screens every day – including the best lawyers of the land and the court officers on their best behaviour – is a far cry from any ordinary person’s experience of our justice system.

Two other cases have been highlighted during the trial. The first was another murder trial just up the court corridor from the Pistorius case, also one of intimate partner violence. It received almost no attention until a foreign correspondent wandered into that court during a quiet moment in the Pistorius trial, and provided a much clearer demonstration of the extent of the problem of domestic violence.

A second case featured another disabled accused, known only as Prisoner X for his own protection, a paraplegic who had been held without bail for two years under the most appalling conditions and without proper medical care.

What we have not seen much of yet in the South African media is an examination of some of the issues which arise out of the trial. These include the gun culture of much of South Africa’s elite which makes the carrying and firing of weaponry a routine part of everyday life; the high levels of gender-based violence, particularly between intimate partners; and the fear of faceless intruders which runs through a society with high levels of violent crime.

It is hard not to think about these things as the trial unfolds, but it often feels that South Africans are trying as hard as they can to ignore them. But it is clear that South Africa’s media environment will not be the same. Coverage – and the conversation around it – is being driven by social media. Conventional media tries to keep up by covering the Twitter and Facebook chatter second-hand.

And the daily newspapers are struggling to keep up, accelerating a serious decline which started a few years ago. Almost all of our daily papers have lost significant circulation in the last two years, which has led to large-scale newsroom cutbacks. The big story of Nelson Mandela’s death at the end of last year brought some relief for sales, but a glance at the dailies now show that they are lagging behind the more nimble electronic media. Suddenly, the country has more live news broadcasting channels than ever before.

The ConversationAnton Harber is chair of the Freedom of Expression Institute in South Africa.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Anton Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand and chair of the Freedom of Expression Institute.

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5 scenarios that will definitely happen in Ukip Britain

The Ukip general election 2017 manifesto is out. 

On 8 June 2017, Ukip defied expectations and pulled off a 392 majority in the general election. Prime Minister Paul Nuttall swiftly enacted his manifesto pledges – all 63 pages of them.

Now, thanks to Ukip, Britons no longer have to worry about silly things like the EU and multiculturalism. But not everyone has managed to adjust immediately to the Brexit paradise.

1. The beekeeper

Tommy knew right away his bees weren’t happy. They were swarming all over him, buzzing like a razor on a rampage, ready to sting. It was just as well he was wearing his beekeeping suit.

Except, wait a minute? Hadn’t the new Ukip government banned face coverings? Tommy was proud of being a law-abiding citizen. As he slowly removed his protective helmet, he shouted a parting message to his wife: “Enjoy our British honey when I’m gone.”

2. The job

“Thanks for coming,” Martin said to the three job applicants sitting in the glass-walled office. “I’m looking for someone who will be able to monitor the world’s FX markets, and identify any kind of insider trading.”

“I did my PhD in fraudulent FX and spent the last ten years tracking white collar criminals down,” said Gretchen.

“I’m a former trader who worked at three different central banks and makes my own beer on the side,” said Pierre.

“I’m young, unemployed, have no real qualifications to speak of and am under the age of 25,” said Stu. “I’m British.”

Martin shook Stu’s hand. “Welcome aboard,” he said.

3. The rescue

Stanley dodged the falling buildings as he made his way to the harbour, where a red-faced man in khaki was standing looking confused.

“Have you brought vital supplies?” Stanley shouted over the rumble of the earthquake.

“I’m from Britain and I’ve got nosh,” the man said.

“Nosh?” Stanley repeated. “What kind of country sends snacks to an impoverished country in the middle of an earthquake?”

“It’s the Naval Ocean-Going Surgical Hospital,” the man said. “We scrapped our foreign aid target.”

“Oh fuck off,” said Stanley.

4. The family

Helen knew something was different as soon as she stepped inside her parents’ house. “What have you changed this time?” she asked her octogenarian mother. “Is it the cushions? Did you give the door a fresh coat of paint?”

“No, darling,” her father said. “We just installed a sauna and hot tub complex along with an outdoor pool.”

Helen scratched her head. “I know Ukip has kept the triple lock pension guarantee,” she said. “But how can you possibly afford it?”

Her parents giggled so hard Helen began to worry they were having seizures. “Haven’t you heard of inheritable mortgages?” her mother managed to say. “One day, all this debt will be yours.”

5. The clouds

Ronald rubbed his eyes, and peered through the window again. No, he wasn’t seeing things. There was no sun. He stepped out of the house and stared at the sky. Where the bloody hell was it?

Then he remembered the referendum the month before. It had asked Gibraltarians if they wanted to be truly British, and he had ticked yes.

It began to rain.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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