Oscar: The day our newsroom went quiet
- Alex Eliseev
- 20 Feb 2013 11:12 (South Africa)
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 newsrooms – 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 streams 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 Magistrate’s 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 a far 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 were fighting and that Pistorius put on his legs, walked several meters 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 both 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 there are exceptional circumstances for granting him bail. 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 decision 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 farfetched. 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. DM
Alex Eliseev is an EWN reporter.
- Nkandla leak: one step closer to the truth
- Jo'burg Ballet: A gorgeous 'The Nutcracker'; an antidote to e-tolls and Krejcir
- Police vs. Krejcir: Could this be the final battle?
- Blue Light Brigade: The president’s bullies assault journalist
- McBride as head of Ipid? WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?!
- Crime intelligence: Ngcobo joins Mdluli on sidelines
- Analysis: Joburg, Gotham City without Batman
- SA schools' safety: Festering scandals, emerging lessons
- Nazir Alli: The man whose bells are e-tolling
- SA government: excellence, unforgiven
- Riah Phiyega’s disaster-filled journey, far from over
- Gemballa case: Key witness' memory U-turn
- Krejcir assassination attempt: The stuff of movies, Bond movies
- The magic of (de)construction: Unveiling the biggest losers
- Goodman Nono and the darkness of our system's soul
- Away from the squabbling family, graciousness and love for Madiba
- The things that Obama can teach us
- A day in the life of a soul-searching country: Will good eventually prevail?
- E-tolls: Final countdown? Or not so... final... countdown?
- Mvula Trust scandal: Minister Baloyi changes tack
- Mvula trust, minister Baloyi and the basic question of trust
- The Phiyega Problem
- Oscar: The day our newsroom went quiet
- Humphrey Mmemezi: An embodiment of all that Mamphela Ramphele loathes
- Mvula Trust: The inconvenient questions
- Exclusive: Water Affairs Deputy Minister, her friends and the R30-million tender
- Get OUTA here: Sanral's win, everyone else's loss
- That race card ain't no trump card
- Gauteng's e-tolling volcano
- FIVE MINUTES: South Africa, 27 September
- E-tolls: the lawyers slug it out
- Humphrey Mmemezi rides into the sunset, for now
- Higgs boson and the loss of our collective compass
- Death of a (textbook) salesman: Motshekga blames the supplier
- Reporter's notebook: Chaos and pain in Marlboro Gardens
- Ketani murder: ex-wife steps out
- Outa's Wayne Duvenage, out of Avis
- Humphrey Mmemezi: Have you any shame, sir?
- Betty Ketani: A murder less experienced
- Zuma squeezes the oxygen from General Cele's job
- The week we learned to listen. And prepare for new battles.
- Crime: Cold case files, South Johannesburg, chapter 1
- The realpolitik of SKA
- PaintingGate: the Gallery strikes back
- Analysis: Painting debate will test our democracy
- Unchain my art
- Gauteng's Highway to Hell, revisited
- Extra! Extra! Coming soon to a court near you: The Richard Mdluli Show
- Maldonado's triumph unites polarised Venezuela
- Defiance 2.0: Malema's back, alive & kicking
- Nazir Alli: E-tolling scandal's first victim
- That sinking feeling: Khoza 2.0 unleashes a storm of... silence
- Analysis: Which model will the police follow - Marc Ishlove's or Richard Mdluli's?
- E-tolling: Judge Prinsloo and hope for South Africa
- E-tolls: The puppet-masters drop their masks
- E-tolls: Judge's admission of urgency Outa hurt Sanral
- Reporter's notebook: Sanral's raging bronco vs Outa's angry rider
- Chuck Colson, Nixon's 'master of dirty tricks', has left the building
- Analysis: Malema's organised demise
- Lights go off on SA electric car project
- Radovan Krejcir is just a symptom
- E-Tolls: A dogfight on the cards
- A fissioning of poetry with imaginative adventures in humanness
- E-tags: The silence before the storm?
- The Princess of Bergplaas
- The Future Eaters... effectively beyond parody
- Malema suspension: ANCYL chess game continues
- His back to the wall, Malema's down to primal instincts - fight or flight
- SKA goes into referee's optional extra time
- The 'Monster', his men and the twists and turns of the Modimolle trial
- African financial ministers back Nigerian for World Bank job
- ZANEWS: Weekly Digest – S4 Episode 27
- ZANEWS: The Misfortune Teller (Part 2) Feat. The DA Team
- ZANEWS: The Misfortune Teller (Part 1)
- ZANEWS: Old School
- ZANEWS: Show me the Money!
- ZANEWS: Juju in Memoriam
- ZANEWS: Tokyo Adrift
- ZANEWS: Coming To America
- ZANEWS: Touchy-feely Boers
- ZANEWS: Weekly Digest # 25
- ZANEWS: Hail to the Chief
- ZANEWS: The Devil Wears Gaga
- ZANEWS: Lindiwe's African Dream
- ZANEWS: The Constitution and Other Fairytales
- ZANEWS: Star Wars Ep. VII – A No Hope
- ZANEWS: Sex, Drugs & Boerie Roll
- ZANEWS: Juju's in the panic room
- ZANEWS: Amazing Zooma
- ZANEWS: Buns in the oven
- ZANEWS: Eye Spy
- ZANEWS: Sirious?!?
- ZANEWS: Flushed Away?
- ZANEWS Weekly Digest
- ZANEWS: Dubul' ibhunu e Gabbana
- ZANEWS: Life after PDV
- ZANEWS: The Donald is angry
- An advice to a monster
- Ster: Return to Art for the Sake of Art
- Missing. One Maverick writer. Might be in Fifth Dimension.
- The SA economy's Cosatu migraine
- France finally arrive at Rugby World Cup
- Libyan War's forgotten sufferers
- Only 12 years after Dubya, another Texan wants to be president
- The 2010 World Cup: Was it all worth it?
- Analysis: Twitter, a @realpoliticalpowerplayerSA
- SKA's little Mozambican brother, still an embryo
- Lewis Pugh: Frack off, Shell!
- The Square Kilometre Array, a project The Karoo deserves
- Press Council hearings in Cape Town - speaking to empty chairs, again
- The Chinese Sphinx: How China reports on Egypt
- Nightmare at Baragwanath refuses to end
- Reporter's notebook: A most curious vigil
- Justice slowed by toxicology reports is justice denied
- Gauteng's mean streets offer police a reality check
- 'Fela! The Musical' comes to South Africa - well, kinda...
- 63rd Cannes: The Bang Bang Club, the movie - where art doesn't imitate life
- 63rd Cannes: Applause, emotion and Life Above All
- 63rd Cannes: Winnie, the movie, Winnie, the dilemma
- 63rd Cannes: Judging the jurors
- Cannes it all come together?
- ZANews Friday: Thabo Mbeki is the obvious choice for Bafana Bafana
- ZANews: Zuma, De Villiers, and Percy Montgomery's hair
- ZANews: Hellen Zille and national security
- ZANews debuts, politicians Shaik in their boots