South Africa

Reporter’s Secret Diary: Three weeks behind the scenes of Oscarnado

By Rebecca Davis 20 March 2014

What is it like being a journalist covering the Pistorius trial?” This is a question asked very seldom by members of the public and very frequently by other members of the media frantically trying to fill their Pistorius-related air-time. But we love a bit of Pistorius trial meta-commentary as much as the next news outlet, so REBECCA DAVIS shared her personal journal.

Dear Diary,

I need to change my place of residence in Pretoria. Yes, I know: I did this once already. In Hotel A I got tired of what I came to think of as “prostitute hour” every evening, and the fact that there was no discernible structural distinction between the reception and the bar, rendering the establishment less a “hotel” than a “tavern with rooms”. I appreciated the good spirits of my fellow patrons, but wearied of their late-nightly habit of galloping down the corridors bellowing lustily while I tried to crank out some desperately grasping Pistorius analysis. I also never forgave the fact that the manager shouted at me once when I tried to smuggle some breakfast pastries into my backpack for the long day in court.

I say “pastries”. They were really just stale, shriveled cupcakes. I have never had a cupcake for breakfast, barring birthdays, but I was willing to give a high-cupcake, low-muesli diet a whirl. Before I moved to Pretoria for the Pistorius trial, I was trying Tim Noakes’s low-carb, high-fat diet. Friends of Reeva Steenkamp’s apparently went on the dedicated Oscar channel, 199, and told the presenter that Reeva was on a low-carb diet too at the time of her death. It will now make perfect sense to anyone on the same eating plan why the state pathologist testified that her last meal was just vegetables and some cheese.

It’s hard enough to do the Noakes’ diet properly in Cape Town, because everyone who shops at Woolies is also on it. It’s not uncommon to see well-dressed women punching each other in the face for a cauliflower, or a pint of lard. You can flipping forget about it in the Pistorius courtroom, where I spent my first days in a state of ketotic shock caused by a rare condition called “never eating anything ever because you’re too scared to lose your seat”.

Anyway, I moved out of Hotel A, which was probably quite a blow to them since I seemed to be the only customer who paid for a room for a whole night at a time. I’m lying, actually: two unfortunate TV journalists from Poland were also staying there for a bit. (You’d think Poland, being literally bordered by Russia, would have bigger things to focus on than the Pistorius trial, like the threat of being annexed at any second, but heigh-ho.)

I offered to share a taxi to court with them once, but they explained that they were off to film at Oscar’s Silverwoods Estate. The three indispensable stops on the international Pistorius journalist’s itinerary: Silverwoods, the North Gauteng High Court, and Tasha’s. Soon an enterprising travel agent will probably start offering package tours.

Now I’m in Hotel B, but I’ve gone off it a bit since a local journalist told me it “probably had the highest body-count in Pretoria”. Maybe he was just trying to psych me out – it’s a cut-throat business, this. Still, ever since then I’ve been sleeping with my 9-mil unholstered by my bed.

That’s a tasteless joke; in reality, the closest thing I have to a weapon is an umbrella, which I prod forcefully at suspicious-looking individuals on my invariably soggy morning walk to court. The days of having to arrive at courtroom GD hours in advance of the start time in order to secure a seat are mercifully behind us. Indeed, there’s no point, since the officious court security functionaries who control the door don’t let you in until about 45 minutes before kick-off.

But it’s nice to get there early in order to be ready to stare fixedly at the significant members of the public when they arrive. By this I mainly mean the Pistorius entourage, who are prone to very public “reaching-out” gestures to members of the Steenkamp family. When this happens, whole rows of journalists fall silent and “discreetly” lean closer – till we are practically bent double over our laptops – in the hope of hearing enough to form the basis of tomorrow’s front-page splash.

It’s not like we’re proud of it. Journalists are under enormous pressure from editors to find “human” angles, “colour” elements, “quirky” aspects to a court case which has been catatonically dull at points. The good thing is that there are members of the public standing by at any moment online to remind you that you are a lower form of life than bacteria for reporting on the Pistorius trial. Unless you adjust your reporting to tally perfectly with their pre-judgment of the case, and then we all seem to get along much better.

If we can all agree on something to hate, maybe it should be the creepy drone-camera which can still be seen sometimes buzzing angrily above the courthouse. Whoever deploys it should find it a more useful purpose in life, like looking for the missing Air Malaysia plane.

Diary, obtaining and eating food remains a major stress-point in court – at least if you arrive each day expecting the universe to provide, as I like to. The courtroom breaks, lavish as they no doubt seem to the presenters of Channel 199 while they seek to fill them with analysis, disappear in a flash when there are stories to be filed at each interval. A new court rule forbidding journalists from bringing food or drink back into the courtroom during breaks is causing a growing mutiny, largely fomented by me to the people sitting within earshot. The suggestion that the rule may have been laid down in response to my noisily opening and chomping through several packets of biltong Mini-Cheddars per day in the trial’s first blush is one I reject with scorn.

Directly outside the courtroom, a trolley has been set up to sell sandwiches and soft drinks to those too busy or lazy to mount the stairs to the cafeteria. The prices are on a par with the finest artisanal paninis from some Cape Town pop-up bakery, but for two soggy pieces of bread separated by a sliver of listless cheddar and an unidentifiable lunch-meat. These are market forces at play in their most aggressive, unregulated form. The demand is overwhelming. Miss your window to pay handsomely for one of these stunningly average sarmies, and lunch is a Tempo.

It’s not all bad, of course. After all, we have ringside seats to the “trial of the century”, aptly dubbed because it can feel unduly trying and sometimes a day seems to last a hundred years. On the other hand, members of the public could also have ringside seats to the trial of the century, if they quit their jobs and got up really early in the morning to queue for a pass. Increasingly large numbers seem to do so, taking up their seats like the tricoteuses of the French Revolution, but without the knitting.

One of them sat beside me the other day, and poured a thrilling running commentary into my ear for hours at a time. It included her many and varied theories about the shooting, and speculation as to whether Barry Roux played cricket. She then deployed witness Darren Fresco to fetch her an unknown advocate’s autograph. Not even Barry Roux’s autograph, though Roux has more than once been in demand to sign scraps of paper. Soon women will probably be proffering their bras for his signature. Truly, we are a celebrity-starved nation.

After the day’s court session, a group of journalists decamps to a nearby café and forcefully and swearily debates the proceedings, while trying to file copy simultaneously. It’s the camaraderie of the trenches, but you can’t admit to enjoying it too much or strangers will demand you be sent to an actual trench.

Diary, I’m off to spend a long weekend choosing between conversations about Nkandla or conversations about Pistorius. Sweet dreams. DM

Photo by Reuters.


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