Oscar Pistorius trial: South Africa’s very different legal tradition can explain news reports

The high-profile nature of trial in South Africa has shown how in some parts of the world there is much greater permissiveness about how proceedings can be covered
  • @willjgore

It has become common to hear people say of British newspapers (the tabloid ones, anyway) that they more or less do as they please, unconstrained by legal or regulatory obligations. This is not necessarily accurate, but as it is reflective of the type of hyperbole tabloid papers themselves indulge in, perhaps they only have themselves to blame.

One area where the British media is certainly restricted is in reporting court proceedings. The debate about whether courts should be televised has raged for years. Aside from that, it is a consistent gripe among editors that the contempt of court rules here are excessively tough. Europeans would probably disagree, since rules on the Continent tend to be stiffer still. Yet the high-profile nature of the Oscar Pistorius trial in South Africa has shown clearly how in some parts of the world there is much greater permissiveness about how proceedings can be covered.

Our reports of the case have in some key ways followed our normal format. However, readers may have noticed there has been more “colour” than would be the case if the trial was taking place in the UK. Our reporter in Pretoria has given fascinating glimpses into the personalities of the various characters in proceedings (witnesses, onlookers and lawyers) and has hinted at the impression left on the courtroom by some of the interventions, even some of the evidence. We have often but not always ended with the usual line: “The trial continues.”

Unfortunately for the British media (but maybe fortunately for British justice), the experience of the Pistorius trial will not affect the way things are done here. The two legal systems are very different by procedure and tradition.

Vitally, there is no jury in South African trials to be swayed by press reports (although two lay assessors do assist the judge). Judges, of course, are unaffected by media coverage since their integrity is beyond reproach.

Publish and be damned? Online has its dangers, but fixing mistakes is easier

If newspaper reports are the first draft of history, then news websites can be the platform for that draft’s earliest version.

There is a paradox at the heart of what we used to call “online newspapers”. Unlike a print edition, which goes to press at a fixed time to meet distribution requirements, there is no technical end point by which a web report has to be uploaded. Conversely, for a newspaper there is no advantage to producing material far in advance of the set deadline. Websites, by contrast, have an imperative to publish as quickly as possible.

This can make more acute the ethical dilemma newspapers have always faced: should we publish if we don’t know the full details of a story or have only one version of events? The answer, for the most part, is yes, but we should still be transparent about what we know and where the information is from.

A recent example came in a story on the “declaration of independence” by the Ukrainian city of Donetsk. Russian news agencies had suggested the declaration had been made by “local legislators” and The Independent’s website swiftly reported the claim.

However, we should have been clearer that the “local legislators” might in fact be Russian-speaking protesters who had just broken into the city’s government building. The item was duly amended to reflect more fully the lack of certainty.

And this of course is the advantage of the web over print. A newspaper’s first draft of history cannot be taken down and tweaked.