Oscar Pistorius trial: why is

Oscar Pistorius trial: why is it being broadcast?

In the case of Oscar Pistorius, it’s a legal first for South Africa to allow so much of a trial to be broadcast, but is this pandering to celebrity or upholding open justice?

Oscar Pistorius trial: why is

Pistorius at a bail hearing

It was ruled on Tuesday that Oscar Pistorius’s trial, starting Monday 3 March, will be partially televised and wholly broadcast on radio, which is unprecedented in South Africa.

The question is why did Judge Dunstan Mlambo make this decision at the North Gauteng High Court? What implications will it have worldwide and, more intimately, to the witnesses and evidence in the case?

The aftermath of the OJ Simpson trial

After American football star OJ Simpson’s televised murder trial in 1995, the broadcasting of court proceedings largely died out. It seems that the furore over his trial put judges off allowing trials to be televised for a long time and only with the huge interest in Michael Jackson and Amanda Knox did cameras gradually reappear globally.

However, with Knox’s trial alienating non-Italian-speaking viewers, and the lack of a living celebrity defendant or victim in the Conrad Murray case, it has been left to the Pistorius trial to inspire the public’s interest in court proceedings again, as DStv clearly expects with the creation of its new Pistorius-centred channel.

Mark Lawson said in The Guardian: “For all their talk of educating the public about the law, the TV companies backing televised trials here are praying for a famous person, early in the experiment, to be accused of rape, murder or paedophilia.” If this is true everywhere then this trial is a dream come true for broadcasters, and they can’t be blamed for making the most of the opportunity.

Clearly OJ Simpson’s trial made for outstanding ratings. CNN’s viewers jumped by 700% on just one day of those proceedings, a figure that no doubt fills eNCA, Multichoice and Eyewitness News with glee.

However, George Mazarakis, executive producer of current affairs show Carte Blanche and the Oscar Pistorius trial TV channel, said today in a media briefing: “This is not about entertainment, this is about showing justice being done. This opportunity comes with responsibility.”

The importance of open justice

The judge’s reasons for this landmark decision should be lauded: he wants to disprove misconceptions around the South African justice system and celebrate open justice.

Lucien Pierce, head of telecommunications, media and technology at Phukubje Pierce Masithela Attorneys, tweeted that it was an “amazing ruling” and that “an exciting new phase for freedom of expression and open justice has begun”.

Arguably, however, the Pistorius trial will not be the norm: the legal system surely can’t be totally defended until all cases are allowed to be broadcast, as otherwise there could still be accusations of meddling and corruption away from the screens and monitors.

Equally, some may argue that open justice is already upheld by print and online journalists who are able to report on these cases to the public without the intrusion of cameras.

From South Africa to the UK

The UK’s decision to transmit live from 31 October 2013 in the Court of Appeal is significant, especially after a decade of campaigning from broadcasters. It enables interested viewers to see inside the justice system but only features legal discussion and no witnesses, meaning nothing can be biased or distorted, although this can feel like a baby step towards true open justice compared to other country’s televised trials.

Ultimately, we shouldn’t assume the worst that witnesses will be put off. Although their testimonies will be broadcast in full over the radio, they do have the chance to say no and keep their privacy — although, of course, they can still be fully quoted in newspapers across the globe anyway.

Also, as many UK residents won’t be aware, South Africa hasn’t had trial by jury since 1969, so the usual concerns of prejudicing or identifying the jury are irrelevant. Judges are presumed to be above media influence so contempt of court is less of a risk.

As a chance for South Africa to prove the fairness of its justice system on the world stage where it has often been doubted in the past, broadcasting this trial ought to make the country more trustworthy, as long as all footage is treated fairly without questionable editing or selective quoting.