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Alex Eliseev: When newsrooms fall quiet

Alex Eliseev
Opinion

The drama around Oscar Pistorius's bail application is like a narcotic.

Newsrooms are loud places. Unlike corporate offices, where the tap-tap of keyboards can be heard and meetings are held in boardrooms, newsrooms – and particularly radio ones – have a loud life of their own.

Journalists yell across the booths, the televisions never sleep, phones ring off the hook, news anchors run up and down the corridors and when the crush of deadline comes, people swarm around each other and pandemonium reigns as the clock ticks down to the bulletin. 

But something strange happened this week, as the world’s most admired Paralympian, Oscar Pistorius, began his bail application: our newsroom fell quiet. 

With teams in court and in Port Elizabeth, those who weren’t out in the field vanished into their computers, watching their Twitter steams roll over.

“There is an eerie silence in the newsroom,” tweeted sports reporter Marc Lewis. “It’s very unusual. Everyone is glued to the hearing”. 

There’s no denying it, we were. It was impossible to tear away from the sensational details emerging at the Pretoria Magistrates Court. After days of speculation, the Blade Runner was giving his version of what happened behind the doors of his R5-million mansion in the early hours of Valentine’s Day. 

The courtroom looked like some strange slumber party, with journalists crammed into every available gap. Reporters sat on the floor, stood against the walls, squeezed in between the lawyers, prosecutors and court officials. There were so many media outlets there, and so many seasoned Twitter hands, that watching it from afar didn’t remove any of the drama. 

With no live broadcasting allowed, Twitter was the only way to monitor the proceedings in real time. And the drama was like some kind of a narcotic. Every move Pistorius made, every time his family offered a comforting hand, every sentence that was spoken by the lawyers popped up almost instantly. Pistorius’s version emerged 140 characters at a time, and it was spine-chilling. 

The athlete spoke of a quiet night before, watching TV while his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp did her yoga exercises; of waking up in the dead of night and hearing a noise in the bathroom; of grabbing his gun while a wave of terror washed over him; of feeling vulnerable without his legs (which he allegedly did not have time to put on) and firing through a closed door; and then, finally, of realising Steenkamp’s side of the bed was empty. He revealed how he then used a cricket bat to bash down the door and carried his girlfriend down the stairs, and how she died in his arms. 

Prosecutors are due to call a police officer to try and dismantle this version and paint a rather different one. They argue the couple was fighting and that Pistorius put on his legs, walked several metres and killed an “innocent woman”. They say what they have are “cold hard facts”. 

But while the court searches for the truth, which may lie somewhere in between, the entire nation was gripped by the testimony. With so many different reporters tweeting the facts and their impressions, as well as the scenes playing out in court, it was theatre of the mind at its purest. 

As court broke for tea, an invisible hand turned up the volume in our newsroom and suddenly everyone was debating the evidence (“what would a reasonable man do?”). As the magistrate returned, it was silence in court and at our desks. When Steenkamp’s family walked out of the memorial service – which was happening in Port Elizabeth – and stood in front of the rolling cameras, the newsroom television transformed into a magnet. Bodies from across the floor slid over to hear what was being said. The model’s uncle, Mike Steenkamp, fought the tears while her brother said that although they were grieving, parts of the ceremony made them smile, as they looked back at the life of a beautiful, happy woman. 

At the same, Pistorius broke down in court and cried as the magistrate’s verdict about the “premeditated murder” aspect of the bail application came in. It was a technical decision which means Pistorius must now prove to the court why he should be set free. He can do this by showing what’s known as exceptional circumstances. It’s not impossible for him to secure his freedom; it’s just a lot more difficult now. 

At one stage, the magistrate stopped the hearing to allow the athlete to regain composure. He was weeping uncontrollably. When the verdict about the schedule of the offence came in, his family swooped in around him and prayed. 

As the day wore on, there were radio reports, TV crossings, photographs of what the courtroom looked like, live Google hangouts, articles on websites and entire documents from court loaded online. The conversation on social media raged from morning to night. “Why didn’t she shout back?” “Why was the door locked”? “There are too many holes in his story”. The questions and opinions flowed from every corner of the country and the globe. Lawyers examined the legal aspects. Activists yelled through their keyboards. Jokers feasted on new material. Companies apologised for advertising fails (such as placing a picture of a man without a leg below an article on Pistorius). It was a virtual stampede. 

At some point, I thought about South Africa’s economy and whether it was hammered by the distracted masses? But that was probably a little far-fetched. And yet it felt like everyone was in one place at the same time – inside a stuffy courtroom in Pretoria.  

International requests for interviews continued to stream in. From Hong Kong to Glasgow, from Ireland to India, radio stations and television shows needed voices closer to the action. 

Foreign news agencies wanted to know what “schedule 6” means; whether we have a jury system; can Pistorius still get bail; and whether he’ll get a free trial with all the media reports and details of the alleged murder leaking out fast and furious. 

There’s no doubt that as Pistorius goes on trial, so does our justice system… our courts, our prosecutors, our lawyers and our laws. The world is watching like never before. So far, those responsible for the logistics of the court case have not covered themselves in glory. The venue and restrictions on coverage have led to scrums outside the courtroom, with one journalist saying he had to use “brute force” to gain entry while another apparently resorted to tears. But these glitches should be sorted out by the time the trial begins. What will matter is that justice is done and is seen to be done. 

What we need is an open and fair trial, where Pistorius’s version is tested against the forensic evidence (and other evidence) and the police’s case is scrutinised. The stakes are high and whether it’s legally torturous definitions of “premeditated” murder; supporting affidavits from friends; blood spatter analysis; or deep constitutional issues, these all need to be handled responsibility. Let’s just hope that while the legal experts do their work, some of us manage to tear ourselves away from Twitter for long enough to do ours. 

Alex Eliseev is an Eyewitness News Reporter. Follow him on Twitter @AlexEliseev.

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