We’re all voyeurs. Everyone has experienced that feeling of schadenfreude when a politician or celebrity slips up in the public eye – whether that’s a figurative or literal fall from grace.
The media frenzy surrounding the Oscar Pistorius murder trial in South Africa is a case in point, but as Guardian and Observer columnist Peter Preston wrote earlier this week – the televised court saga is an education, not a soap.
It doesn’t make for easy viewing, in the same way that warfare shown on the 10 o’clock news has far more gut-wrenching relevance than any shoot ’em up movie or video game.
The Pistorius chronicle is, all morals aside, the recipe for a perfect news story. Everyone is familiar with the adage bad news sells – but countless newspapers and sites across the world have squeezed serious mileage out of the gruesome tale of a Valentine’s Day massacre involving a beautiful, educated model and a well-respected handicapped athlete.
The voyeurs in all of us have listened intently as the incredibly-skilled prosecution and defence teams paint a picture of Pistorius wielding his gun either on his stumps or standing tall in his futuristic prosthetics. Incidentally, I find either option could be manipulated to absolve him from – or, indeed, convict him of – the charges of murder or culpable homicide. But that’s probably why I’m not a lawyer. But there is little difference between the glare of the public eye on Pistorius’ fight to protect his reputation, his freedom – or perhaps, as the case may be, his lie – and this very webpage you’re reading right now.
Will you, when they are published on this website today, scan the court lists for the latest lot of scoundrels brought to justice in the borough? The very fact court round-ups feature regularly as our most viewed articles, along with most crime reports, shows this is truly where most people’s interests lie. We’re all motivated by a desire to keep ourselves and those around us safe, though perhaps not as much as we are to find out the gory details that are played out in courts the world over. But open justice is not about selling papers or gaining web hits. As a journalist I firmly believe in the concept of open justice– though of course trial by media is not the way to do this. For the most part, court cases are public, as are the records. The cameras in the dock with Pistorius – beaming images to millions – are merely an extension of this.
It is not for us to judge (though of course we will over the watercooler in the office, or a drink down the pub), but we in the Western world should feel privileged to have a transparent court system where wrongdoers are held to account, and their wrongdoings publicised in the free press, whether you’re a layman, politician... or a supposedly untouchable Paralympic superstar.