A Fact-Free Diet – Analysing Media Reporting on the Oscar Pistorius Saga

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Bloodhounds are world famous for sniffing. Dopey looking, lank eared creatures they might, their noses are more alert than a parrot on methedrine. If given the opportunity, they are prolific and will sniff you out, friend or foe – they just need the scent.. In much the same way, journalists or ‘media hacks’ carry on their business in a similarly functional manner, seizing the opportunities presented before them by stumbling celebrities, bungling dictators and unwary politicians to fill their pages with truth, lies and their dastardly offspring, rumours, which thus fuel the conjecture which erupts from the controversy hungry ‘reasonable man’. Oscar Pistorius, since 2003, seized to be the ordinary man and the media worshipped him, dubbing him the world famous ‘blade runner’, creating the legend, embellishing it and fuelling the ambitions of a man who, throughout his early life, faced what to the ordinary man would be insurmountable challenges. Without dwelling too much on the vicissitudes of early life with no legs from knee down, perhaps tougher to cope with was losing his mother at the young age of 15. A case would certainly be made for the latter – he had never had to cope without her before, and until then she had been his main source of love and inspiration. His father, he says, he converses with more as “a buddy”, a friend with whom he speaks with perhaps “once a month”. We all love a fighter, a do-it-against-the-odds type. And the media knows that too.

Which is why in the last few days, I have been genuinely stunned at the media coverage of the tragic death of the Blade Runner’s model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, and the now obvious involvement of Pistorius . Locked up in a cell in Pretoria, there is no proverbial ‘place to run to’, the challenge certainly the biggest he has ever faced. Charged with murder, he stands to lose it all – his sponsorships, his celebrity life…his life as he knows it today. Meanwhile, a hugely promising lady who by all accounts was a immensely talented, ambitious and almost angelic in her interactions with her loved ones – indeed, her twitter account seems to suggest a lady blessed with a convivial and jocular persona – will be cremated in the coming week. But the media wheel has continued to churn out the titillating stories, the ‘exclusives’, the ‘friend of Oscar who said this and that’ tales, feeding the public appetite for devouring all information with scant discriminatory regard for what is the truth and what is not. William Bird, Director of Media Monitoring Africa, confirms the attractiveness of the current situation.

This is a classic fall of a hero; you couldn’t ask for a better news story – attractive, famous white people involved in a heinous, terrible crime”, he says, breaking down the essential elements that grease the media wheel.

The South African media is agog with exclusives in a game of one-upmanship with each media house trying to gain the upper hand in the hot news race. As ever, the lines between fact and fiction are coterminous, virtually becoming indistinguishable particularly in light of the dearth of authoritative information about the incident. What we do know is this –

  •  Neighbours called Police after hearing disturbances at the residence of Pistorius followed by gunshots.
  • Pistorius underwent blood tests on arrest.
  • He has been charged with murder, which he steadfastly refutes in the “strongest terms”.
  • Reeva Steenkamp was shot more than once; some reports say “4 times” although their source is ‘anonymous’.
  • An Ipad and phones belonging to both individuals were found in the home of Pistorius.

After these, the lines blur and the difficulties arise. Of course, keeping a close eye on the story from Aberdeen, the writer has been stunned by the different narratives that have arisen from this. We had the ‘failed Valentine’s day surprise’, one the writer was quick to jump on if only because it projects Pistorius as the unfortunate hero who committed a perfectly understandable, but tragic, mistake in the fraught insecurity of South Africa. This has swiftly been followed by the outraged lover suggestion, a text from a rugby star purportedly acting as the accelerant for a fiery rage which ended in a violent outburst of gunfire. Or was he just high on a mix of steroids and alcohol?

Hmm, the baseball bat is a central piece of evidence, right?  “For what?” one wonders.  The more this writer reads, the less he believes and the more anxious he is for the bail hearing and further court proceedings to begin.  Celebrated Prosecutor, Gerrie Nel, is ready to pursue, as earlier mentioned, a charge of premeditated murder, which seems to suggest the presence of some compelling evidence against Pistorius.

The world media is of course keen to get in on the act. The Sun recently received hundreds of complaints for a cover page which featured the slain Steenkamp clad in little more than a bikini, a picture of the seductiveness of life which sadly provided irony for the moment as she lay in macabre cold of a Pretoria morgue. Publicity, whether good or bad, is good and for the Sun, notorious for its penchant for the salacious and unsavoury, that was in keeping with the rules of their business. The New York Post came up with its own ‘creative’ headlines, “Blade Slays Blonde”, reducing the fallen lady to the irreverence of objectification – all for the sake of the paper’s ‘paper’.

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‘Abominable’

Tuesday’s bail hearing will do a fair deal to shed light on the facts and circumstances of the case before us. Perhaps the Police will reveal more details as time goes by, although it is arguable that to do so outside of the court would be a move towards trying Pistorius in the court of public opinion, a notoriously fickle and unreliable forum.  Not that the process has not already begun, of course. Then again, the action of the media, in the face of little juicy bone of fact to chew on, has meant having to rely on dry fodder, churning up stories to keep us all satisfied and of course, to pay the bills. His sponsors, Nike, BT among others are steadfastly standing by him, maintaining a reasoned view of affairs and rightly so – nothing has been decided. Legally speaking, the concerns of some over the influence the media reporting of the ‘facts’ of the story are, by and large, unfounded. South Africa abolished its jury system in the 1930s and has since adopted a system of a judge sitting with two assessors who are usually magistrates or retired judges. The perceived impartiality of judges, coupled with the mandatory publication of a reasoned decision, means that judges are far less susceptible to being influenced by the media than laymen and women on a jury.

So like bloodhounds, the media around the world has been given something to work with. However, unlike the canines, their wilful disregard for what is fact in the face of an incredibly alluring narrative leaves a lot to be desired. This raises the question of the battle between reconciling the private interests of the media with the public interest in actually receiving the truth – not that the public itself is usually the best judge of what is in its interest. In any case, the masses want to be fed and the media gladly throws chaf at the baying hordes that willingly devour it. That the legal dimension is hardly harmed by the rampant reporting of such rumours only serves to encourage the spread of conjecture and the propagation of rumours. The facts are few and far between but on the material of the last few days, you would be forgiven for mistaking fantasy for reality.

*** This was written prior to the bail hearing on Tuesday and as such may have been overtaken by certain developments.  Nevertheless, the basic theme behind the words remains the same***

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So here’s the deal

Ronaldo says Real Madrid are better than Manchester United and will qualify. That’s okay, we already know that. A
couple of weeks ago, I proclaimed, on facebook, that real madrid would, come May, be the champions league winners of 12/13. “Traitor”, they cried, “sellout”, rang the criticism, I remained stoic and gave my reasons for why Real Madrid will see off my beloved Manchester United. This encpasulates that phenomenon of fandom – the implicit irratiinality which demands that u support a team and keep doing so even in the face of unparalleled odds and gross imbalance in quality is perhaps what makes football and fandom such an appealing, intoxicating mix. It is argued that this connection strengthens the weaker the team is, with those fans’ bonds of love tried and tested by the stinging heat of defeat and disappointment.

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So yeah, as a Manchester united fan, we are used to success, used to being the top dogs and as such, we almost cruise through the rare difficult patches. So excuse me if I took a pragmatic approach to viewing the tie – a victory would be great and fill me with joy, a loss will be merely be minor disappointment in light of what I had predicted before. After all, we are the underdogs. Nevertheless, it’s time to don the cap of optimism topped with a feather of reason and actually examine whether Manchester united could indeed come away with the victory.

Away Leg at the Bernabayo

Statistical analysis has shown that the team that plays the second leg at home is more likely to win the tie than that which plays at home in the first leg – it’s a sizable margin as well (57-58% win the tie if second leg is at home).  Apparently, the psychological element becomes extremely crucial in such games, and this dictates approach as per tactics and strategy in the first leg.

The starting line-up and formation will be key. In goal, David De Gea will most certainly play, returning to madrid for the first time since his transfer from los rojiblancos. At right back, if there is a weakness which rafael has, it is his lack of height which has been exposed on occasion with crosses played into the far post.

Ronaldo is perhaps the most dangerous player in the world from these plays, drifting in as he is wont (he did so devastatingly for us in the champions league more than a few times) to convert thumping headers. Nevertheless, our brazilian right back has been the best in the league this season, allying tenacious, improved diligence in defending to his irrepressible attacking brio. After excelling against top quality attackers in ronaldinho, ribery and bale, ronaldo presents a slightlt different challenge – his regular drifts into the middle, coupled with the exuberant skills of marcelo are something he hasn’t faced before.

The rest of the defence will be rio ferdinand, I predict Jonny Evans and Patrice Evra. Evans offers greater mobility than Nemanja Vidic who, even in his heyday, was exposed to the mobility of Karim Benzema. Communication is key against the many headed hydra that is the madrid attack. Patrice Evra, experiencing a stellar season, will have his work cutout against the impish di maria. Although having an up and down season, his recent display for argentina illustrated that when he brings his game, he is among the most devastating players on the planet. His threat on the counter can never be ignored but importantly, and contrary to what many think, his diligence and workrate in defence is incredible.

Our team as a whole is not known for coping with pressing – and madrid does a lot of that. The focus should be on holding a solid shape, pressing in our half, before launching the counter attacks. That has been the approach which has worked in most of our big game scalps this season but perhaps most notably againsy Chelsea in our 3-2 away win. What is key is maintaining that attacking slant – gone are the days of playing for a 0-0 like we did against Barcelona in 2008. Real Madrid is too good a team to invite upon oneself without hoping to take a goal off. Which brings one to an area that los blancos struggle with – breaking down teams.

Borrussia Dortmund provided a template on how to beat Real Madrid in their two grouo games especially at the bernabayo. It all came from pressing which started in the midfield zone. Staying compact in your own half against a counter attacking team that thrives on space behind the defending team poses the challenge – break us down. Dortmund’s tactic was aided by quick, efficient transitions. Michael Carrick will be key with his improved ability on the ball while under pressure but it is arguable that Tom cleverley will play a vital role in these transitions. His one touch style of play, in theory, should work perfectly against Real Madrid’s attempts to win the ball in our midfield zone via their own pressing. Mesut Ozil, with his penchant for drifting to the flanks to provide overloads, will need to be dealt with so expect to see frequent movement of one of our centre mids towards the flanks if the german international does so. Breaking that first bank of pressure works like escaping a high pressure valve – space opens up automatically. I’m plumping for Nani to play on the left facing up against arbeloa with the returning pepe and ramos in the middle.

Wayne Rooney is the most crucial part of the team. He failed in tracking andrea pirlo at the euros and the juventus man ran the game…literally. A similar lack of awareness against real madrid will he intolerable with xabi alonso arguably the best regista in the world after pirlo. Giving him time to launch his raking diagonals to the flanks will keep us repeatedly on the backfoot. Rooney showed signs of improvement in tracking against Manchester city and chelsea which should give us some hope. Sami Khedira poses a different sort of challenge and I don’t expect rooney to follow him on his regular forays upfield. A proper box to box midfielder, carrick and cleverley need to be aware. Khedira, with good finishing, could have bagged a hattrick against Manchester city at the etihad, curious for a player who is often labelled (or mislabelled) as a defensive midfielder.

Upfront, Robin Van Persie, as genius a footballer as he is, will thrive on service. Not blessed with outstanding pace, balls in behind will almost certainly not reap any rewards. As we have seen, productive crossing has contributed to his glut of goals in his debut season (23 so far). However, and importantly, a technical player that he is, hold up play will be vital in allowing our wingers and rooney to get forward in support if we look to break with speed. Real madrid have not been infallible this season, nearly not qualifying for the second round of the competition and ‘languishing’ in 3rd position in la liga. Jordi Alba recently echoed the thoughts of many – “atletico madrid are their rivald atm, not real” – while not dismissive of real’s talent or status as barcelona’s number one rivals but certainly indicative of the problems los blancos have faced this season.
Also, San Iker is out with a broken hand and one would hope that decreased familiarity between the back line and diego lopez plays out in our favour.

It does seem counterintuitive predicting that real madrid will win the champions league before attempting to dissect how manchester united could make a game of the first leg but that’s what a fan does. Control territory or controlling possession, a key dilemma for Mr Ferguson but if recent history is anything to go by, territory, in Madrid, will be much sought after with maximum use made of whatever possession we are granted.

I’ll be watching the game on my phone – circumstances dictate so but I do hope for a great, diligent performance which will provide a foundation for the second leg. Remember the 57-58%.

Till after the game on Wednesday…