/ 22 February 2013

Oscar Pistorius: Media masters work to win two trials

Journalists scramble to interview Kenny Kunene outside the court.
Journalists scramble to interview Kenny Kunene outside the court.

Oscar Pistorius has two trials happening. The one in the Pretoria Magistrate's Court started on Monday. But the second trial is one that is harder to control – the court of public opinion, which started as soon as news of the death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp hit the media.

The athlete's team has made sure that they hired the best of the best to defend his reputation in both courts.

There may have been no television cameras or radio broadcasts allowed during court proceedings, but South Africa saw a new phenomenon cemented this week: the trial of Pistorius by Twitter.

And that left his family scrambling to keep up with an insatiable media appetite, with the star's reputation on the line minute by minute, as journalists furiously reported on every detail of emerging evidence.

The family does not see itself as being involved in a hearts-and-minds war, denies it is engaging in spin, and is very clear that the focus is on freeing Pistorius, both immediately and ultimately. But that has not stopped it from putting on a slick public relations face within days of Steenkamp's death.


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Last week the family called on the former editor of Britain's most notorious tabloid the Sun, Stuart Higgins, for help. By early this week, local reputation-management company Vuma had a team of four, plus support staff including writers, working on the case, with Higgins involved in strategy from afar.

Giant in the media
"This is not about [Pistorius's] image," said Vuma chief executive officer Janine Hills. Vuma has represented controversial business­people including IT magnate Robert Gumede and property tycoon Sisa Ngebulana, as well as national roads agency Sanral.

"This is about an incredible, iconic star, a giant in the media," she said. "Our role as a team really is to provide the information that the media is calling for, not to manage his image … The Pistorius family would have been remiss had they not set a system in place to respect that and get Oscar's message across factually, accurately and without distortion."

On Wednesday the family unveiled a reworked version of Pistorius' website, oscarpistorius.com, which centred on the state's allegation that he murdered Steenkamp. The site now features on its front page the various statements that have been put to the Pretoria Magistrate's Court, including assertions by friends that Pistorius and Steenkamp were deeply in love.

Hills said her team would aim to release two media statements a day for the duration of the frenzy of ­coverage around Pistorius, in order to cover the multiple time zones with a fierce interest in the case.

Vuma on Wednesday arranged the first television interview with a member of the Pistorius family, putting forward his uncle Arnold and Pistorius' manager.

The interviews were conducted by local broadcaster eNCA, but on condition that the material was made available through news agencies Reuters and AFP.

"We're trying to use the smartest way to get to the sheer volume of media worldwide," said Hills.

"The family, I mean they have been in court the whole day, emotions are running incredibly high, it's a very sensitive time for people just like you and I, who are now being thrust into the media world. It's quite inhumane to expect people to just do that."

But she said Vuma's work for Pistorius should not be called spin.

Media whizz shrinks from the limelight

Tuesday did not find Stuart Higgins holed up in some smoke-filled back room, cackling dementedly as he pulled the strings of blissfully unaware reporters. Higgins was in the trenches.

"I'm sorry, we're working on it," he told one reporter while dashing between rooms in the magistrate's court where Oscar Pistorius's bail hearing had just ended for the day.

"I'll get that to you as soon as I can," he told another. "Just hold on for one second."

Higgins has something of a reputation as a master manipulator of the media, especially among the British press, which comes with certain expectations. But at the Pistorius hearing he found himself a general in the trenches, scrambling to make copies of his client's affidavit, and in desperation paging through it for photographs.

"I'm leaving for London tomorrow," he told the Mail & Guardian on Tuesday. "Yes, I have become part of the story here, and that is not good for the family, not good for the media, not good for me. I'll be doing back-end work on this from London."

Higgins's addition to the Pistorius team had been reported on the weekend, creating a new line of speculation in the story. Why was the family parachuting in an image-maker from the United Kingdom? Could Higgins prevent future stories such as his former paper's claim that steroids had been found in Pistorius's home? Did his deployment amount to an attempt at trial by media?

Given his history, a bit of speculation was probably called for.

Red-blooded tabloid man
When Higgins left the notoriously sleazy Sun tabloid in 1998, it was rumoured he had done so because of plans to take the paper upmarket and, after 19 years with the institution, he did not fancy that job. The BBC described him as "a red-blooded tabloid man who revelled in the paper's heady mix of sex, sleaze and showbiz gossip".

His personal life also had a hint of sleaze attached to it. In 2003, under parliamentary privilege that provides immunity from libel actions, a Labour MP claimed to have evidence that silencing sexual harassment claims against Higgins had cost his employer, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, £500 000 in hush money. News Corp said it could not discuss details of the allegations, because it was bound by employee confidentiality.

Higgins was, and remains, un-apologetic about how he approached the news. In a written statement to the recent Leveson inquiry into ethics and illegal action by the British press, he said his four years as editor of the Sun sometimes saw decisions that sought to "achieve the maximum 'edge' to the story through its content and headline without being sued".

"In other words, the question was: 'How far can we go without risking a writ?' I accept that this approach may not be seen by the inquiry as responsible as it may hope but that is the nature of the beast in the competitive tabloid market."

At one point that saw him publish what was ultimately shown to be a fake video of Princess Diana canoodling with a man who was not her husband.

After leaving the Sun and setting up his own public relations firm, Higgins did not lack for clients, some of them in deep trouble. Although tennis player Andy Murray only needed help in finding his charm, Higgins acted as spokesperson for model Kate Moss when she was accused of drug use.

Mostly, however, his company played a behind-the-scenes role in helping individuals and organisations in the middle of a media storm – or just to better surf the wave of popularity with a few tips and introductions, as he did for Pistorius during the London Olympic Games.

Although he honoured the Pistorius family's request to rush to Pretoria, he said this week he could help on communications strategy but little else. "I don't know the turf, I don't know the journalists and I don't know the publications," he said.