In the public interest? Covering SMSes, sobs and shootings

It may be interesting to the public that a celebrity shot his beautiful girlfriend in the early hours of Valentine’s Day, but that doesn’t make the broadcasting of that story inherently in the public interest. Deliberating about whether or not the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius should be broadcast or not, Judge Dunstan Mlambo noted that open justice was a “noble” idea. He decided that broadcasting what he termed a ‘celebrity’ trial would dispel public misconceptions about the justice system.

While I agree with the broad principle, I worry that the increasing allure of celebrity culture has skewed our sense of what matters, and what we need to see and hear. Indeed, much of the coverage I have witnessed doesn’t focus on the public interest aspects of the case at all. So while the process of justice is crucial to understand, I worry about the cost of that public interest where there are also overwhelming private interests at stake.

Justice – while serving a public interest – is always also deeply personal. It is impossible to listen to Pistorius’ wavering shaky voice giving testimony, and not wonder what right you have to be listening to this. It is equally difficult to watch Steenkamp’s parents without feeling like an intruder, like a voyeur invested only superficially in a case that means everything to a family that loved and raised a child who is no longer here.

And because we – like the rest of the world – have developed short memories in the era of short news cycles and increasingly pared-down news rooms, it is tempting to believe that the Pistorius case represents the first major event that has allowed South Africans to watch…

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