Pistorius trial: TV pantomime where the judge makes up the rules
Again, the trial of Oscar Pistorius highlights many aspects of wider South African society in ways which are of significance far beyond the courtroom and who did what to whom and why.
Not least the issue of televising courts, which is slowly but surely permeating our legal system, too. At least one major legal case has already been in front of cameras in Scotland, for instance, as a (no pun intended) trial. It is creeping up on us.
I remain firmly opposed to this, and it seems to me that the current unfolding mess in South Africa serves only to underline some of the reasons why.
You either do it or you don’t. Yesterday’s proceedings were held up for several hours while lawyers argued to the judge from positions they all agreed upon: that the pathologist’s evidence should not be heard live because it is distressing for the public and relatives of Reeva Steenkamp.
I have never heard of this happening in any court case I have ever covered, here or abroad. The judge appeared to accept the pathologist’s medical arguments about duty of care to the patient, dignity of the deceased and “do no wrong” – whatever that may mean…
All well and good in the medical world. But should such arguments gain any purchase at all in a murder trial? Incredibly, both prosecution, defence and even the brief representing the media accepted this outlandish argument, that medical rules override legal needs in a major murder trial. That evidence in a major murder trial must be censored because it might just be upsetting to someone, somewhere, somehow.
And to see the South African media willingly going along with all this via their lawyer was truly something to behold.
The judge not only entertained the argument but accepted it.
The media’s lawyer was rushed to court to argue from a supine position of utter capitulation that the media should somehow get together and produce a summary vt of pathological evidence at the end of the day to be decided upon by – of all people – lawyers for prosecution and defence!
Since when have they been or should ever be co-opted as public censors on ground of taste? Do they not have ever such a slight declaration of interest?
This is an utter absurdity and has no place in any competent court of law, nor ever should it. I have sat through countless inquests, murder trials and the like where medical experts patiently and dispassionately lay out how bullets and blades and other objects pass through key human organs of the deceased, thus rendering them so.
It’s normal. Deal with it.
But this court could not deal with it. South Africa, clearly, cannot deal with it. And the unanimity of all lawyers – most of all, perhaps, the media’s own lawyer – says much about the peculiar lack of self-confidence pervading the conduct of this trial.
Going forward, if this country really is hell-bent on TV trials, we trust by precedent that a poor – and, yes, black – man who has been done to death, will also not have those details transmitted live in any future televised court case, lest persons unknown become upset.
And this is not the only floundering here. The judge seems completely at sea with the Twitter phenomenon. Yesterday tweets were banned completely on the pathologist’s evidence. So all the world got to hear about was Mr Pistorius’s very loud and very public vomiting.
Vomiting over what? We could scarcely tell.
Judge Bans ‘Graphic’ Pistorius Case Testimony from Twitter, TV http://t.co/gSBscI4URb
— NBC News (@NBCNews) March 10, 2014
The judge then changed the order so reporters could summarily tweet the evidence after the event.
Today – another day and another ruling – reporters can now tweet the evidence as it is given. The judge, quite literally, is making up the rules as she goes along. That’s not unusual and it happens here sometimes as judges get to grips with social media. But it’s been particularly flagrant and cackhanded in Pretoria this week.
As for the televised nature of the trial, it remains one of the most untelevised televised trials I have ever not seen, witness after witness preferring to give evidence behind screens.
As I say, you either televise or you don’t and much of what is happening in this pantomime only strengthens my own view that cameras should not be admitted to courts at all.
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