Paying the price for Pistorius trial broadcast

Murder accused athlete Oscar Pistorius. (AFP)

Murder accused athlete Oscar Pistorius. (AFP)

The court ruling to allow live broadcasting of the Oscar Pistorius trial has changed the media landscape in South Africa. In response to the decision, dozens of media outlets from around the world have flocked to Pretoria to give us 24 hours of every possible detail and analysis of the proceedings. As the trial progresses, numerous questions have been asked about the role of the media and how newspaper editors can judge the level of public interest in order to satisfy the seemingly insatiable need for information from the public. Yet I have not seen any in-depth analysis of the toll all the media attention is taking on those caught up in this drama, without any fault of their own.

On a daily basis we are shown images of Pistorius and his family arriving and leaving the court in a media scrum. The same applies to Reeva Steenkamp's family and in particular her mother, June. During the trial cameras frequently move towards the family members, hoping to capture some emotional reaction. This week in particular, the cameras focused for lengthy periods on June Steenkamp while Pistorius was apologising to Reeva's family and giving testimony. Pistorius, as was the case with many of the witnesses, could not be shown, but the mother of his victim had to endure the eyes of the world on her, during what must have been an excruciatingly painful experience for her.

The question must be asked if it is right or justifiable that an additional burden of knowing that every twitch and emotion or lack there of during the daily torture in the courtroom will be scrutinised and commented on, is placed on her. I know from personal experience, albeit on a much smaller scale, the pain and additional trauma that causes. 

In 2010, I found my partner and the love of my life, Gerry Ryan, dead on our bedroom floor. I had not spent the evening before with him. We had a loving conversation just before midnight and promised to talk as usual the next morning. However, the call never came and a few hours later, I knew I would never speak to him again. Ryan, a broadcaster, was extremely well known in Ireland and 20 minutes after I made the emergency call, journalists and photographers were outside the house. From then on they became my almost constant companions for the next three years.

They waited outside my house, knocked on my door, reported when I went out, how I looked, how I reacted. If I dared smiled, it was reported that I was "over Gerry". If I looked sad, I was "close to a nervous breakdown". One newspaper even published photographs of my lovingly written birthday cards for Gerry that they claimed was found in trash outside his house. At a time of trauma and deep mourning this was unbelievably difficult to handle, but there was very little I could do. 

Because Ryan had died alone, a public inquest into the cause of his death was held eight months later. The media interest had grown for months and there was no doubt that every media outlet in Ireland was going to turn out in force. One editor of a tabloid was "kind" enough to warn me beforehand that they were sending three journalists to the inquest: one to focus on me and write about my reactions; one to watch Gerry's estranged wife and one to listen to the proceedings. "So make sure you look well," he said, "and for God's sake don't hide your tears behind dark glasses. Tears are good for stories!"

The terror I felt beforehand and on the day is very hard to describe. It was of course horrific to relate to the coroner how I found his lifeless body and to live through those awful moments again. In addition, I had to listen to the details of the autopsy and toxicology reports. To listen to someone describe the state and weight of your loved one's organs is not something anyone should have to go through. I tried desperately not to think what the pathologist had to do to get that information, but of course I knew.

However, as horrific as all that was, it did not come close to the terror of having to deal with the media scrumming around me as I entered the court room, reporting on every reaction I showed and having to leave with them scrumming around me again. 

The exhaustion and additional emotional trauma caused by the media interest of that day took months to get over. In my case the proceedings took only one day. June Steenkamp will, by the end of the trial, have gone through it for weeks. 

Of course the media argues that their coverage is in response to public interest. It is, however, important to acknowledge that the media also generates and causes an increase in the public interest. The tragic history of Princess Diana is perhaps the best example of that. Yes, the public is interested, but the more that interest is fed with tantalising details, the more interest grows and the more the media is under pressure to give more. This comes at a heavy price, to those who are truly innocent and have already suffered so much. Surely they should be afforded as much, if not more, protection from the cameras as the witnesses or accused? 

I have met, worked and been interviewed by hundreds of journalists over the years. In my experience the majority of them are good people who went into journalism with noble motives. The problem is that, irrespective of the motives of individual journalist, the media's response is largely driven by commercial incentives. In the weeks after Ryan died, I was told by another editor, that anything with Ryan on the front page sold up to 30% more. And so the stories, many completely untrue, kept coming. 

The sad reality is that as long as we are watching the TV broadcasts and buying the papers, no one will protect Steenkamp's mother and family from the cameras and media. The emotional price they will pay for our curiosity and the lack of protection they are afforded will be enormous. 

Melanie Verwoerd is a former MP, ambassador and author of the upcoming book: Our Madiba: Extraordinary Stories by Ordinary People who Met Nelson Mandela"

 

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