/ 4 March 2014

Oscar and the Oscars: Our vilest obsessions

Oscar And The Oscars: Our Vilest Obsessions

The irony of parallel trending topics involving Oscar Pistorius and the Oscars awards ceremony on every analogue and digital platform built to disseminate information was not lost on the world or its media. We sniggered at how this murder saga was "made for Hollywood". The tenuous link, though, masks our more macabre obsession with two very mortal vices: vanity and violence – our vilest obsessions.

The only thing we love more than seeing our celebrities paraded on the red carpet during awards season, is seeing them frog marched to the dock facing charges ranging from murder in a toilet, to giving "blowjobs" in a parked car on Sunset Boulevard. We love a very human meltdown by people who, through our own complicity, have cast themselves as superhuman; unobtainable by you and I, and more beautiful than last year's "most beautiful people". Tragedy makes celebrities more accessible and more vulnerable to the emotions and travails associated with the realities of this world.

For those of us who hate his music, we take pleasure in watching Justin Bieber instagramming his latest meltdown one selfie at a time. For him it's a status update, for us it's a symbol that he will be idolised no matter what he does because it's about the publicity. The details? Not so much. We're voyeurs in need of a fix, not a meaningful encounter.

We consume every gigabyte of celebrity culture flung at us from the digital bowels of Hollywood and beyond – from trying to keep up with the Kardashians to succeeding at being pretentious at the J&B Met – and in the end that culture consumes us until we can no longer tell the difference between a poignant human tragedy in Silver Lakes, Pretoria, and the latest E! Entertainment reality show.

We're rendered gullible enough to believe that there are similarities between the OJ Simpson 1994 murder trial in Los Angeles and the "Hollywood-style" trial playing itself out in Pretoria, because "the media" told us so. Bullshit. Both accused were professional sportsmen and heroes to sports fans, and both trials were televised. But that's where the similarities end. Simpson's trial polarised Los Angeles along racial lines. It was already simmering in the wake of the Los Angeles riots two years earlier that was preceded by the Rodney King beating. There was emotional baggage.

The Pistorius trial is doing something very different. It is awakening the sleeping giants in newsrooms and legal circles across the country. We are finally talking about access to justice, transparency and equality before the law. Significantly, this case has drawn the line between Pistorius's rabid fan base and those who believe he is yet another violent man in a man's world who needs to pay for his actions.

What is also illuminated is some of the darkest pastimes of two very different countries: violence, gender roles and celebrity.

On Sunday night, movie stars and moguls were herded along the red carpet in Hollywood to pay homage to their designers, pose for the cameras and collect some awards along the way. We worshipped these glamorous beings while we blissfully blurred the lines between reality and make-believe. And so we feed the machine, and it returns the favour. The vicious cycle of consume-and-be-consumed is complete.

An American teenager who has lost a grip of reality buys automatic weapons over the counter and sprays bullets into the bodies of his peers. We've heard this story so many times we've stopped caring, and this inability to tell fact from fiction is revealing itself as the heart of the Pistorius saga. How do we reconcile his heroic acts on the track, his good looks and glowing reputation with such a ghastly act against a (beautiful) woman? As if an attractive person is less deserving of such a fate. More still, how could this happen to two famous, rich, white folks? The horror.

Cue the public relations machinery. But before you do, pause for a second to appreciate that a defendant in a murder trial has employed a team of PR people to declare the "hard truths" on his social media accounts and manage his reputation across the globe. No, this is not some alternate universe. This is how they, at least try to, control the narrative.

We're charmed into believing that somehow Pistorius is the victim in all of this, and that Reeva Steenkamp's life is more important than the lives of countless other victims of crime in South Africa. We're reluctant to point out that Steenkamp is now more famous in death than she ever would have been in real life; that somehow because she, as a woman, insisting on the same basic rights as anyone else, can be portrayed as a feminist. It's a stretch, but we accept it because it's a compelling narrative that will no doubt bring in the numbers and audience ratings.

But Steenkamp's death is not insignificant from a news point of view. She was shot dead in the early hours of the morning through a toilet door by her world-famous boyfriend who happens to be double amputee Olympian Oscar Pistorius – on Valentine's Day. Breathe. You really can't make this shit up, and if you can't recognise that this is an astoundingly good story in the times we are living, then you may have lost touch with the world we have created for ourselves.

It's not a just or fair world by any stretch of the imagination, but do we really need to parade journalists and production crew as celebrities in front of … wait for it … "the media", as if they were about to embark on a voyage of discovery to an uninhabited land? Like they were about to face the All Blacks in the World Cup final?

We've become a product of our own vanity. It's a giant media selfie at the scene of a crime; our sense of self-worth wrapped in the haute couture of the celebrity lifestyle we adore so much. If only there were Oscars for journalism, we'd be unplayable. Indeed, if only there were Pistorius stories every day, we'd be a lot richer.

Make no mistake there has been, and will continue to be great journalism – brilliant journalism even, as some reporters hope to make a name for themselves. And there will be shoddy journalism, just like every other day in South African journalism. Ironically, the mainstream media is using the very same excuse that tabloids use when they are criticised for overselling the tokoloshe. "There is an overwhelming appetite for it – and people want to know."

Calling it the "trial of the century" and creating flashy stings and intros is news porn. It's excessive, but view this in the light of falling newspaper circulation, declining advertising spend and consumers' dwindling reliance on media outlets to tell them what's news, and you will begin to understand why when Pistorius shot Steenkamp it was manna from the heavens. Some of us will profit from it, or at least break even. Some of us will throw everything we have it at it, and who can blame them?

Does it have anything to do with a fair trial and transparency? Probably not. Scores of people are cheated by the justice system every year. We've never bothered before. It has turned beat reporters into criminal justice experts and editors into TV analysts. Perhaps more than you, the audience, had bargained for? Most likely.

Pistorius's murder trial is our tokoloshe story. Covering it doesn't bring us much pleasure, but we'll milk it the best way we can and we'll be damned if we ever let it go. Be careful what you wish for.