Public interest on trial as Blade Runner becomes Africa’s OJ

On Monday, South Africa comes of age. We finally lose our virginity – and this will be captured live on television.

In 1995 the United States had OJ Simpson. Two years later the United Kingdom unleashed au-pair Louise Woodward to the world.

As one tin pot dictator once said: “If they can did, we can did it too.” And so next week, a first for Africa will happen when we televise the murder trial of Paralympian, Oscar Pistorius, better known as the Blade Runner.

A South African judge ruled on Tuesday that parts of the trial of Pistorius can be broadcast live on television.

Pistorius, 27, is accused of killing Reeva Steenkamp, 29, in February last year by shooting her through a locked lavatory door. He claimed he thought she was an intruder. Prosecutors say he murdered her after a row.

The jury is out – on television.

Judge Dunstan Mlambo said that broadcasting the proceedings would go “a long way” to dispelling the perception that rich and poor are treated differently by the country’s justice system.

He allowed the installation of small, fixed cameras that will live broadcast the opening and closing arguments of the lawyers, the evidence of experts, and the judgment and sentencing comments made by the trial judge.

He has also allowed the audio broadcasting of the entire trial including witness testimony, provided they did not object.

The ruling is a legal first in South Africa.

Pay TV monopoly MultiChoice – one of the applicants who wanted the trial covered live – has already set up a dedicated channel that goes live from tomorrow evening in preparation for Monday.

Multi-Choice is broadcast in many African countries and we can only expect that from Monday morning, millions of Africans will be glued to their screens, watching a real life soap opera.

Expect the ratings of many reality TV shows – all of which are on the MultiChoice platform – to plummet for a while.

At least for the next few weeks, South Africans and many other Africans will be glued to their screens, not necessarily following legal arguments but really to enjoy the drama, the glamour, the fashion and to an extent, the voids that sometimes come with reality TV.

Public transport chatter and small talk will move away from sport, politics and the pending national elections, scheduled for May 7. The nation and the continent have something new to talk about – a courtroom.

Although the media houses that applied for this ruling are ecstatic and call this a victory for justice and public interest, I believe the decision to cover this trial is nothing but commercial.

Millions of viewers and radio listeners will do nothing but follow this trial, at least for the first few weeks. This comes with lots and lots of advertising.

And for MultiChoice, the only Pay TV masters, they will be walking all the way to the bank and back, again and again and again while the trial drags on. And it will drag on, trust me.

I am hard pressed to be convinced of the public interest argument here. What good does covering this trial live serve the public? Will the public be better or worse for not watching this trial live?

The answer to all these questions is an emphatic no. It is simply interesting to the public. Just like the OJ Simpson case.

By the end of this trial, there will be many anecdotes along the lines of “if the glove doesn’t fit, acquit”.

By the end of this trial there will be famous lawyers like the late Johnny Cochrane.

By the end of this trial, tissue paper manufacturers will have made a few bob from housewives who will sob their eyes out as details of the murder unfold and pictures of the blonde Reeva grace the screens.

If this were America, by the end of the trial, there would be advertisements created out from the trial’s anecdotes. But this is still possible here in South Africa.

When the judge finally bangs his gavel and delivers his judgment, the nation – and continent will be divided in two – and this two will be exploitable commercially.

Just to make it even juicier, there will be several other divides formed by this trial. The Christians will be fighting with atheists and agnostics because the latter are unforgiving.

Women will be hating their male partners for being so heartless and not realising how sad this matter is.

The typical white supremacists will be unhappy that black people are watching a white hero in disgrace, and black bigots will be shouting at the top of their voices to showcase why white people are evil.

Parents will use the trial to advise their children about how not to marry a future murderer.

And the media will be smiling ear to ear. Public interest? My foot. But definitely interesting to the public.

Sometimes virginity is virtuous.

[First published in Dubbo Weekender]