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.

Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.