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

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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".

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Property
pets
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
News
Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn are breaking up after nearly three years together
peopleFormer couple announce separation in posts on their websites
Sport
football
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’
tvThe Enfield Haunting, TV review
News
news
News
The Mattehorn stands reflected in Leisee lake near Sunnegga station on June 30, 2013 near Zermatt, Switzerland
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk