Testimony in Pistorius trial ‘affected’ by TV coverage

Author tells Bar Council conference coverage of case similar to that of major sporting event

 Oscar Pistorius (centre) is surrounded by security personnel as he leaves the High Court after the third day of his murder trial, in Pretoria, South Africa on March 5th, 2014. File photograph: Kim Ludbrook/EPA

Oscar Pistorius (centre) is surrounded by security personnel as he leaves the High Court after the third day of his murder trial, in Pretoria, South Africa on March 5th, 2014. File photograph: Kim Ludbrook/EPA

 

The televising of the Oscar Pistorius trial turned coverage of the case into something very like a major sporting event, the conference of the Bar Council has been told.

Journalist John Carlin, author of a best-selling book on the trial, said the TV coverage involved live reporting, TV pundits discussing the latest developments, replays of the most dramatic moments, and evening highlights.

Interest in the case was such that for nine months there was even a 24-hour TV channel devoted to the case.

Mr Carlin said he had spoken to Pistorius’s defence attorney, Barry Roux, on Thursday to ask him for his views on the televising of the trial, and he had come up with two fundamental problems. One was that he believed witnesses were affected in what they said by the fact that they knew they were on TV.

He also, Mr Carlin said, believed that witnesses followed the trial on TV and social media, and tailored their testimony to fit with testimony already heard.

In response to questions from the floor, Mr Carlin also said that televising the trial added to the anxiety Pistorius experienced during the process.

The decision to televise the trial was taken despite objections from the defence but on condition that witnesses could choose not to have images of their face broadcast. Pistorius made that decision.

Mr Carlin said it was his view that the coverage influenced the prosecution’s decision to go for first-degree murder, or pre-meditated murder. The court found the disabled athlete guilty of culpable homicide. After an appeal, Pistorius was found guilty of second-degree murder.

Mr Carlin is the author of Chase Your Shadow, the Trials of Oscar Pistorius, as well as Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation, the inspiration for the movie, Invictus.

Wary

The chairman of the Bar Council, David Barniville SC, told the conference, which had the title Trial by Media, that the Bar did not have a view on the televising of trials, but that personally he would be very wary, especially in relation to criminal trials.

He said the presence of TV cameras could affect the way the various actors involved in a trial behaved. However there might be an argument for introducing TV coverage of the appeal courts, under strictly controlled conditions.

Joshua Rozenberg QC, presenter of the BBC 4 radio programme Law in Action, said England and Wales were considering broadcasting sentencing remarks and a trial project was under way.

There was evidence that the televising of trials contributed to making the public better informed about the legal process and increased confidence in the judicial system. On the other hand, there were concerns about the effect on the giving of evidence by victims and witnesses.

Gordon Jackson QC, vice dean with the faculty of advocates in Scotland, said he was against cameras in the courtroom. He believed they would adversely affect the court process.

He was not sure that the evidence supported the concerns about witnesses or the effect on jurors. However, he said, television was a uniquely powerful medium. Trials could become “another reality show”, with TV both sensationalising and trivialising the court process. Television coverage can also affect how lawyers perform in court. “Cameras don’t just observe and record, they affect how people act.”

He thought that if they were to be introduced, those in favour of the development have to show why it would be a good thing.