The week the trial got ugly

2014-04-14 10:00

My conscious effort to avoid the Oscar trial seemed to have paid off. Not tuning into Oscar TV was easy; skimming the latest trial headlines and scrolling away or flipping a page was easy.

I love listening to talk radio, so that was a bit more difficult.

Luckily I’ve developed kung fu off-switch reflexes from catching Jenny Crwys-Williams by mistake on the car radio, pretuned to 702 and liable to start up with the engine.

Whenever 702 – the radio station I hate to love – interrupted programming to cross live to the trial, I might listen for a few minutes to the cough and rustle of the court and the almost comical number of “Miladys”, and then I’d get bored.

Courtroom dramas are made for TV, but courtroom trials are achingly undramatic as technicalities are sifted with the patience of gold panners and laborious translations drain the proceedings of pace and emotion.

Also, have you noticed how witnesses don’t speak like actors in Law & Order? As a young court reporter, I would practise yawning through my nostrils as the clock crawled towards the tea break.

I still don’t know what Barry Roux or Gerrie Nel look like, and I’d have to think for a second before being able to say who’s the defence and who’s the prosecution.

As for the armchair advocates on the airwaves, they drove me to Classic FM with their expert views on the speed of bullets, the integrity of the toilet door and which cop was most likely to have stolen Oscar’s Rolex.

On the flip side, when trials – especially murder trials – are not making the public gallery want to chew its own arm off for sport, they are tawdry and upsetting, which is another reason I have avoided the Oscar trial.

Trials convened around acts of violence remind us that life, like death, is a messy thing fraught with conflict, chaotic emotions and bad decisions that are hard to explain in the cold forever after.

If only every crime had a clear motive, like the “aha” moment in a 43-minute TV drama. But humans are not that uncomplicated.

A friend who had been on the wrong end of a hideous home invasion which involved physical and sexual assault over several hours, described her feelings on being in court when one of her torturers got 15 years.

He was a young man, she said, looking scared in the dock in his rancid clothes. As he was led back down to the cells after sentencing, his mother begged the warders to pass him a packet of tobacco she’d brought to court, a little consolation to carry into the underworld.

This small scene did not cause my friend to punch her fist in the air and yell “result!” Watching his pain, she said, gave her no pleasure.

We’re what broadcasters call “sensitive viewers”. We squirm away from seeing nasty stuff happen to people, even to nasty people. We don’t wish

to be turned into insensitive viewers, those nerveless people we fear we might become if we get too used to seeing nasty things happen to people, even to nasty people.

But by Tuesday this week, it was no longer possible to live in the world and avoid the Oscar trial. All my usual audio escape routes – BBC, RFI, NPR – were playing the same awful sound clip of Oscar Pistorius bursting into tears on the stand.

Hearing a man cry like that, the raw, open-mouthed howling of a child, is terrible. Hearing it over and over on every newscast on every station at every hour throughout the day eventually made me stop up my ears: I felt dirty – like a voyeur, like a victim.

Despite what the Oscar TV oligarchs have spun as our democratic right to devour it all, I know I don’t need to be “inside” that courtroom for justice to be done.

This week we got it all. This week it was difficult to switch off.

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