AFTER Gauteng Judge President Dunstan Mlambo delivered his ground-breaking ruling that opened up the Oscar Pistorius trial to the hurly-burly of 24-hour news broadcast, the delighted media heads took to the channels to proclaim it a victory for openness and press freedom.
Judge Mlambo ruled that the right to a fair trial would not be compromised by allowing television networks and radio stations to broadcast the audio of the proceedings, with exceptions made for witnesses who do not mind being on camera. This is the first time in South African history that a trial has been opened up in such a manner. (On Wednesday, the WBF cruiserweight champion Kevin "The KO Kid" Lerena became the very first person to testify on live television.)
The South African National Editors Forum welcomed the judgment, saying that it believed "it goes a long way in entrenching an open, democratic society envisaged in the constitution in terms of which justice is not only done, but is seen to be done."
Other news editors and producers agreed. This was a big deal for South African media. MultiChoice opened up a new channel dedicated entirely to the trial, and manned (personed?) it with the Carte Blanche crew and other people.
I am among the small army of journalists that has converged on the North Gauteng High Court, and we have come from all over the world. I sit next to people from Australia, the UK and the US in the overflow room, a court adjacent to the one where the Pistorius hearing is being held.
But why are we here? Indeed, ever since the trial started, every third or so tweet or comment I’ve seen in the social media about the Oscar Pistorius trial has been that the person doesn’t want to follow the trial. Some politicians feel aggrieved that the spotlight has been snatched from them in an election year, when they ought to command all of it.
I have some misgivings about the case for public interest in the death of Reeva Steenkamp. You could argue that this is just a man who shot a woman, and this happens all the time in South Africa, and perhaps we should move on and find someone "truly deserving" of media coverage. Indeed, some of my very close friends have objected to my face.
Yet this is a painfully naive view of the world, and how journalism works. I have seen and spoken to battle-weary hacks who were in Côte d’Ivoire when Laurent Gbagbo was deposed by the Forces Nouvelles of Guillaume Soro fighting for Alassane Ouattarra, when Col Muammar Gaddafi lost Libya and when the Central African Republic fell into anarchy, and when police tried to stop a wildcat strike with a barrage of machine-gun fire at Marikana. All these worthy journalists are now following this "meaningless trial". Why?
Because these are the realities of 21st-century journalism. The internet has eaten away at old industry business models, and serious journalists must now compete with Buzzfeed’s cat GIFs and Reddit’s memes for the public’s attention.
One by one, media houses have had to respond to this reality. The news has become a meme — just look at how the coverage of the Ukrainian riots was largely reduced to shareable photos. Journalism has to aim down to bring in the bucks.
The reality is that serious, meaningful journalism is bloody expensive. The stories about what the Kardashians are up to is what brings in the ratings, which pay for the serious stuff. That’s the miserable pay-off that we have to make.
It is far too easy to say that we should be covering "real" human misery somewhere. The people who say this secretly know that such coverage alone can no longer sustain newsrooms.
In 2012, MultiChoice was almost made to unbundle the DStv packages it offers, as someone sued to be able to select channels. The network’s argument was that by bundling channels, the lucrative ones dealing with celebrity and smut paid for the loss-making channels. Unbundling would ultimately result in less choice for the people.
And that is the reality of the media beast feeding the world Pistorius tidbits. It is we, the hacks hanging onto every word in the North Gauteng High Court, who will bring you tomorrow’s important news. The days of being precious about what we cover are long gone.
This view also ignores the fact that this case is informing us about ourselves, our attitudes and our fears. Pistorius says that he feared an intruder in his house. The prosecution is arguing that domestic violence at the hands of a loved one (the way that most women who are killed in South Africa die) is something that happens in the most heavily fortified estates, not just "over there" in the townships. It is almost as if it is South Africa itself that is on trial. There are layers and layers of nuance to unpack.
"Actual journalism is now fully dependent on the insidious oil-slick creep of the celebrity tabloid — one could argue that Mandela’s slow death and Oscar Pistorius’s bathroom antics are directly responsible for anyone outside of Bangui knowing what is going on in CAR," wrote Richard Poplak for the Daily Maverick.
"It is painful to watch great journos spending their days Tweeting an ex-Nike shill’s facial expressions from inside a courtroom, but this is the trade-off. No Oscar, (no) Bangui. No Oscar, no Juba."
I could add: no Oscar, no Marikana.