As South Africa’s athlete Oscar Pistorious continues his five years sentencing for his conviction over culpable homicide for shooting his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp and reckless handling of firearm charges, the trial’s live broadcast, specifically the analysis of his grand escape from a murder verdict by a specially launched 24 hour channel, will live as a model of how the media can educate and interpret events and situations.
The trial opened in the High Court of South Africa in March this year and Pistorious was answering a murder charge for shooting Steenkamp, his girlfriend who was a model. He was also answering several firearms-related charges. Early in February, the court exercised its discretion after an application ruled that the entire trial may be broadcast live via audio and that parts of the trial may be broadcast live on television.
After witnesses testified, got cross examined and parties to the case made final submissions, on September 11 and 12 Judge Thokozile Masipa delivered a unanimous verdict made by herself and her two assessors that Pistorious was not guilty of murder, but culpable homicide of Steenkamp, and reckless endangerment with a firearm at a restaurant.
The verdict was not what many had anticipated. Many legal experts in that country openly predicted a murder verdict and at the moment, they are either accusing the judge of not understanding the law and incompetence in appropriately applying the law to the evidence presented or advancing calls for an appeal.
Even as far as the United States of America, a sister to the well-known OJ Simpson’s wife has referred to the verdict as a tragic replay of the OJ Simpson trial, with just different names and places. A leading legal expert was even quoted as having said, with or without an appeal, Judge Masipa’s interpretation of the law needed some clarity by a senior bench.
Although Masipa had expressed reservations in broadcasting the trial live, which included influencing of witnesses who listened or watched others giving evidence before them, the live broadcast, through indepth analysis, brought interpretations and clarity on why the judge arrived at that particular verdict. Apart from giving out information that media houses could have omitted in their news gathering process, the live broadcast gave a chance to millions of viewers to relate matters and properly understand how a trial is conducted.
Although many people may disagree with the judgement, legal analysts who were invited to explain the nitty-gritty of Masipa’s reasoning explained clearly that her decision was probable because the prosecution relied on circumstantial evidence, had uncorroborated witnesses’ statements and it only needed the defendant to give a version of events which could reasonably and possibly be true to get an acquittal or a lesser charge. Such was the power of the television broadcasts that millions with little or no legal knowledge had a chance to get a clear understanding of the matter.
It was a marvel to watch television hosts who exhibited complete proficiency in legal discussions. The anchors asked legal analysts excellent questions that allowed the learned men and women to explain issues at hand impartially. It was more than just reporting, as they critically analysed and interpreted the proceedings for the benefit of the viewer.
One of the hosts brought in a clip that carried the cross-examining mastery prosecutor Gerrie Nel has which exposed Pistorious as a poor witness, which many thought could have put the prosecution’s case at an advantage. But the lawyers on the programme explained why that was not enough for the judge to rule in favour of the prosecution.
For those of us that rarely attend court hearings and do not read a great deal, the live broadcast and analysis helped us add terms such as dolus eventualis to our limited legal parlance.
In an era when the media, communications and information landscapes are changing fast, it was encouraging to see how media analysts were analysing social media usage in relation to the Pistorious trial. Media analysts gave empirical statistics on how some South African journalists gained social media prominence as they reported events during the trial. By monitoring social media trends, the analysts found out that some journalists became the go-to source for all proceedings surrounding the Pistorious trial.
—The author is a military officer writing in his personal capacity.