It has been called the trial of the century before it has even started and for the next three weeks the world’s eyes will be focused on a court room in Pretoria, South Africa, as 27 year old Oscar Pistorius defends himself against a murder charge.
It is over a year since the death of Pistorious’ girlfriend, law graduate, model and reality TV star Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine’s Day 2013 whilst at the athlete’s home in Pretoria.
This is the first hearing that cameras have been allowed into a South African court and the footage will be broadcast around the globe, feeding a frenzy of speculation, opinion and analysis. This will also be one of the first times there has been such interest in court proceedings since the boom in social media use across the globe. Already accounts have been set up on Twitter, both in support of the athlete (@OscarHardTruth, administered by Pistroius’ media team) and against, with many social media users already declaring their opinion as to the culpability of the athlete.
Not since the trial of OJ Simpson has there been such global public interest. The trial will offer an insight into the South African paralympian’s life, as a sportsman and as a media personality. Pistorious was declared a hero during the London 2012 Olympics, the first amputee to participate in the games and taking the gold medals in the Paralympic 400m and 4x400m relay, breaking world records in both.
Although the Judge can retain some control over what will and will not be broadcast, it is expected that the discrete hanging spy cameras will be used to allow full audio but limited visual coverage. It has already been stated that the testimony of the defendant will not be broadcast on television, for example.
The trial will feature over 100 witnesses, including former girlfriends and other sportsmen alleged to have been threatened by Pistorius, and is expected to last three weeks.
South African television will dedicate a channel to the Trial. MultiChoice’s pop-up channel – “The Oscar Pistorius Trial – A Carte Blanche Channel” – will provide 24-hour coverage and include “a large variety of expert guests from around the world, [including] senior legal minds, psychologists, forensic experts, social commentators, brand gurus, social media analysts, news and media heavyweights.” Experts will include Robert Shapiro, OJ Simpson’s defence attorney and forensic analysts from shows including Dexter. I am pleased to say that I will be joining them from time to time to add comment on the social media impact of the trial and any legal implications, both globally and in the UK.
The laws regulating defamation, in many jurisdictions including the UK, extend to what is said through social media. As well as civil proceedings, such as those famously brought by Lord McAlpine against Sally Bercow, criminal prosecutions may follow where statements are made which are “grossly offensive” or threatening, as detailed in the DPP’s guidance. Further, the Attorney General has spoken out about the influence social media has on juries, but also with reference to contempt of court proceedings, where confidential or secret details are exposed online, such as when the identity of John Venables was allegedly disclosed and retweeted.
Recognising the public appetite to speculate and cast blame, in April last year Pistorius’ family issued a statement saying, “The disregard that is being shown by some — specifically those commenting via social media — for the profound pain that Reeva’s family and friends are going through is very troubling.”
Last week, once again the athlete’s family issued a statement to state categorically that they as well as the legal team “will not be distracted by extraneous issues that have no bearing on, or relevance to, the legal process that must now be allowed to unfold… The time for public commentary is over. The focus is now entirely on a very serious trial…”
With so much attention focused on the trial already, it will be difficult to avoid speculation, commentary and analysis. But justice needs space to be done and whatever analysis may come in the next three weeks or coming months, it is hoped that the Court’s judgment will stand without criticism.