Stephen McGinty: Families are victims too

Oscar Pistorius and his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. Picture: Getty
Oscar Pistorius and his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. Picture: Getty
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THE public’s long-standing obsession with the drama of ‘celebrity’ trials means we all too often ignore the other sufferers in high-profile cases – the victims and their relatives, writes Stephen McGinty

WHEN a young woman is shot dead on Valentine’s Day, it is a tragedy. When a young woman is shot dead on Valentine’s Day by her boyfriend, an internationally acclaimed athlete, it is a tragedy and the beginning of a “celebrity” court case.

Yesterday we finally learned why, in the middle of the night, Oscar Pistorius fired shots through a closed bathroom door and killed his girlfriend, the model and actress Reeva Steenkamp. In the opinion of the South African judge, Thokozile Masipa, whose opinion in the absence of a jury is the only one that counts, Pistorius was not guilty of premeditated murder but of culpable homicide, which indicates that she believed it was an accident.

The South African legal system, which does not have juries, is inconsiderate to the demands of the television moment. Instead of a jury foreman standing to announce either guilty or not guilty, those anxious to know the verdict had instead to listen to Judge Masipa read pages of nuanced legal consideration before reaching the crucial last page of this “murder mystery”. Those keen to see Pistorius branded a trigger-happy murderer would have been disappointed.

The trial of the disgraced celebrity has always been popular with the public. When Oscar Wilde took the stand in London there was a black market for tickets to the courtroom, with fights breaking out among those who wished to procure the most advantageous seats. The crowd who gathered at the train station to see him transferred to Reading Jail were delighted to witness the disgrace of one who had soared so high in London society now brought so low.

I wonder what, if anything, has changed since then? If we were to unpack why we are interested in trials such as these, what would it tell us about ourselves? Yet before we come to that it could be argued that, in the case of Oscar Pistorius, the fascination lay more with the media than with the public. Like OJ Simpson before him, Oscar Pistorius was hardly a household name in Britain. Yes, people might have vague memories of “the Blade Runner” and the controversy over his unsportsmanlike behaviour during the London Paralympics when he accused the victor of the T44 200m final of cheating, but I’d doubt if in Britain five people in 100 could actually have put a name to his face. Yet as soon as the first police report came in, Pistorius’s celebrity spiked.

Then there was the beautiful blonde. In the cases of OJ Simpson, Phil Spector and now Oscar Pistorius there has been a beautiful blonde lying dead on the floor. Nicole Simpson Brown. Lana Clarkson. Reeva Steenkamp. What was different in this case and, to a degree, what made it less compelling for the true crime junkie was the fact that right from the start Oscar Pistorius admitted shooting dead his girlfriend through the bathroom door. There was no equivalent of the footage of a white Bronco driving down the freeways of LA tailed by a fleet of police cars.

Nor did he deny pulling the trigger, as Phil Spector did. The legendary music producer insisted his date was depressed with her career in B movies and killed herself in his home and he was helpless to stop her. No. As a celebrity court case the trial of Oscar Pistorius was deeply unsatisfying for the misery voyeur wishing to mainline on mystery, intrigue and an athlete’s pain.

The facts were established within hours of the incident. Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend. It took a lengthy televised trial to establish that OJ Simpson had not stabbed and killed Nicole Simpson Brown and her boyfriend Ronald Goldman and this was what made it the perfect celebrity court case.

The story evolved into one of race and what is and what is not justice. The OJ Simpson case became more than a celebrity court case, it marked the beginnings of our current obsession with reality TV and the high water mark of American culture’s global dominance. I remember that Alastair Campbell called the BBC head of news in an attempt to persuade them that a speech by Tony Blair was more deserving of leading the news than the verdict on a former American football player, but how could Blair’s words compete? OJ Simpson wasn’t news of any consequence to anyone in Britain, but it was something better, it was high drama. It was also a drama that revealed what anyone who has come into contact with the law will know: that justice is blind, at times blind to the truth and to the facts and can be shaped by a jury until she emerges unrecognisable.

It was thought that this might well be the case for Phil Spector, whose defence set aside the accused’s long history of brandishing guns at guests to his Hollywood mansion, and argued instead that the victim died by her own hand, not his. The first trial ended with a hung jury and a mistrial but the second trial found Spector guilty of second degree murder and the judge sentenced him to 19 years imprisonment.

In the case of Oscar Pistorius, the prosecution focused on the athlete’s own fascination with firearms and history of temper tantrums and violently lashing out, and built a case that accused him of premeditated murder, of gunning down his girlfriend after she fled to the bathroom in fear following a row so loud her screams were audible by neighbours almost 200 yards away.

However, Judge Masipa effectively struck down the idea of an argument, or neighbours hearing screams, by finding him not guilty of premeditated murder.

The reality appears to have been that he awoke startled and, in fear for his life, fired through the door at what he believed to be an intruder. After carefully balancing the evidence, the judge has come to the conclusion that it appears to have been a tragic accident, one for which Pistorius still deserves to serve a lengthy sentence.

The celebrity trial brings out the prurient inquisitor in us. We take a certain dark comfort in seeing those who we believe to have it all destroy themselves. Those who previously perceive such people as being above them are quietly happy to see them fall below them. This is one ingredient in the broth, but another is that we also enjoy a mystery, particularly a murder mystery, and so when one happens to involve a “character” with whom we’re familiar, then so much the better. Either way, we tend to forget the victim and the agonies through which their family are going as a consequence.

You could argue that we should look away and not become so involved in such cases, but I’m now not so sure that anyone really was so involved or wrapped up in the Oscar Pistorius trial. Like the trials of Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks over phone hacking, the trial was simply a long wait to see if the jury had shared public prejudices, which they did with Coulson but not with Brooks. In the case of Pistorius, it has been a mild interest in how long he would serve and for what?

These trials, like TV soaps and paperback mystery novels, are distractions from which we derive nothing of value. I agree that justice must be seen to be done and that there is nothing to stop the public viewing some cases as a form of entertainment, but the reality is that the only crucial viewers are the victim’s family and what matters most is whether or not they feel the ending is just.