Trial by media of Oscar Pistorius: facts, guesses and spin surround Reeva death

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With no contempt laws to speak of in South Africa, rumours and half-truths have been allowed to swirl around the murder case. Daniel Howden and Ian Burrell report on an unsavoury PR battle

Today, Reeva Steenkamp's family will gather for her funeral in Port Elizabeth. The media is barred; only those who knew her best will attend the private ceremony. It is also a significant moment for Oscar Pistorius, who will appear in court for his bail hearing 600 miles away in Pretoria. The sprinter has no control over the media – and nor does anyone in his team. The reporters will gather outside in huge numbers as they have ever since his arrest. Soon he will be in the dock again to face a murder charge, but in many ways his trial began as soon as news of his lover's death reached the media. The only difference here is that the facts of the case carry a much lower burden of proof.

The slow grind of South Africa's justice system, which barely recognises contempt of court, has been unable to keep pace in the era of social media and rolling TV news. As a consequence, the first disabled global sports superstar has found himself deluged with accusations and insinuations masquerading as facts. "I don't know where people got these stories," complained police spokesperson Katlego Mogale. "We haven't issued a statement [about the case] or spoken to anyone."

Observers have been shocked by the level of speculation – including allegations of bloodied cricket bats and love triangles – that would fall foul of contempt laws in most Western jurisdictions. These lurid allegations have been repeated so many times that they have become as real as the facts confirmed by police on the day Mr Pistorius was taken into custody – that there was a shooting incident involving the athlete and his lover, that she was dead, and that a 26-year-old man had been charged with murder. The police spokesman was bombarded with questions by journalists, but refused to divulge any further details. It would be "premature and irresponsible", she said.

"The prosecution could change [the speculation] by just stating some of the key facts of their case," said Toby Shapshak, a commentator on South African affairs and former crime reporter. But prosecutors are unlikely to do so until after today's hearing and confirmation of the charge of premeditated murder, which Mr Pistorius's team will challenge.

As part of the attempt to hold back the avalanche of negative coverage, the 26-year-old athlete has called up Stuart Higgins, the London-based public relations expert, who represented him during the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. Higgins, who worked for years in the macho newsroom of Kelvin MacKenzie's Sun before succeeding to the editor's chair himself, has a tough task on his hands. "Some people are absolutely appalled at the coverage," he said. Last night Mr Pistorius's PR team were relaunching the athlete's website to publish sympathetic comments he has received. "Our job is to capture some of the support that Oscar is receiving from all over the world, lots of positive messages from people who still believe in him," said Higgins. "People have emailed saying he has been an inspiration to their disabled child – they are expressing their disbelief, and also their support."

But he admits there is only so much he can do. The athlete's lawyers have taken the position that they will not fight the case in the media. "PR spin isn't going to keep Oscar Pistorius out of prison but the truth might," said Higgins. "It's frustrating but at the moment I'm under strict instructions that I cannot influence coverage in any way directly or indirectly. The legal team believe the case will be proven in the court room and not through the media."

Into this official void has stepped a quasi-accepted version of events in which Mr Pistorius's girlfriend received a text message from a love rival last Wednesday evening. Reports further stated that an argument ensued which ended with Mr Pistorius allegedly shooting his girlfriend some time after 3am on Thursday morning in the bedroom of his Pretoria home.

According to this version of events, he shot her once in the bedroom and then pursued her into the bathroom where she attempted to hide in a toilet cubicle, only to be shot several more times in the hand and head. At some point, South Africa's City Press newspaper reported a cricket bat was used either in self-defence by Ms Steenkamp or on the attack by Mr Pistorius. None of these reports have been confirmed or denied by South African police or the prosecuting authority.

In this charged environment and with much of the world's news media watching, the extent and detail of reporting and the response it has drawn from social media has sparked fears that the athlete will not get a fair trial.

Ferial Haffajee, the editor of City Press defended her paper's coverage of the story saying that the sub judice rule had not been violated. She went further to state that: "We are ethically and legally clear... There is nothing in our coverage that will harm the court process."

She is able to say this because South African courts differ from their British and US counterparts in that the jury system was scrapped back in 1969. Mr Pistorius's case will be heard by a single magistrate. Previous high-profile cases in South Africa have established that a judge should be above being influenced by reports in the media, let alone speculation on the internet.

"The publication of these allegations illustrates that the so called sub judice rule is no longer in existence in its original guise in South Africa," said Pierre De Vos, a constitutional law expert at the University of Cape Town. "It also illustrates that in the court of public opinion the notion of 'innocent until proven guilty' is often used by those blindly and loyally supporting a criminal accused to try to avoid admitting that their guy might very well be a criminal."

The lead prosecutor in the Pistorius case is the notoriously tough Gerrie Nel, who bounced back from being arrested in 2010 on the orders of former police commissioner Jackie Selebi to have him convicted on corruption charges. The fact that he has chosen to go for the stronger "premeditated murder" charge – a schedule 6 offence under South Africa's Criminal Procedures Act – suggests the forensic evidence is compelling. There is no equivalent to the "crime of passion" under the country's law and premeditation in this case means prosecutors believe that the accused shot his girlfriend more than once and with enough time to decide that he meant to kill her.

The cricket bat and the love triangle allegedly involving another South African sports star – who has denied any involvement – may turn out to be red herrings. Well-placed police sources have said the bat is irrelevant to the state's case. But privately, even the Pistorius family accepts that the case is nonetheless very strong.

Higgins might not be in South Africa for too much longer. He agreed to offer "crisis communications support in the short term" and is helping to put in place a South Africa-based team that can continue the work in the weeks to come.

The former Sun editor said he was confident that "the facts and the truth will come out in the court case" and said he had no regrets over taking Pistorius's PR brief. "On a personal level I felt that we had done a really good job for him [at London 2012] and that because someone is suddenly in trouble I don't think you necessarily turn your back on them," he said.

The Paralympian's prospects of receiving bail are likely to be decided by whether the state argues that he is a suicide risk rather than a flight risk. The gold medallist has been on suicide watch at the Pretoria police station where he is being held. His best chance of not going to prison while he awaits trial lies in the parlous state of South Africa's jails. Massive overcrowding has meant that even in the most open and shut murder cases, the accused have been bailed to relieve massive overcrowding.

PR gurus: the kings of a crisis

Stuart Higgins's deployment to Pretoria is a sign of the growing demand and international nature of London's crisis communications industry. His involvement in a South African-based story follows Max Clifford's representation of Shrien Dewani, from Bristol, who is accused of killing his wife Anni during a honeymoon in Cape Town in 2010. Clifford also represented OJ Simpson during his trial in America in the 1990s.

Other PRs who specialise in coming to the aid of high-profile clients include the former News of the World editor Phil Hall, who represented the England footballer John Terry and the wife of Sir Paul McCartney, Heather Mills. Matthew Freud came to the rescue of Gordon Ramsay when his career was facing a meltdown, while Gary Farrow protected Jonathan Ross after the Andrew Sachs voicemail scandal.

The involvement of Mr Higgins in the Pistorius case can be read as an indication of the power of the British news media in influencing a global story. He understands the international reach of the Daily Mail's website and the special place held by The Sun in the ecology of the News Corp empire.

Other London PRs work on a different level. Lord Bell has promoted the image of the likes of Thai politician Thaksin Shinawatra.

All of these British reputation managers are challenging the American pairing of Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane, whose work for Lance Armstrong has helped them to the title, "Masters of Disaster".

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