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’.
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***