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Is it time to rethink media regulation? #oscarpistorious

Oscar Pistorius attends a court hearing at the Pretoria magistrates court, South Africa.Unsurprisingly, the news that South African sporting hero, Oscar Pistorious (a.k.a. the ‘Blade Runner’) allegedly shot dead his model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, broke first on Twitter in the early hours of February 14th. In the tirade of tweets and social media posts that ensued, the details of the incident started to emerge, leading to conflicting speculation that the shooting was an accident or indeed the tragic conclusion of a domestic argument gone wrong. Accounts of the couple’s tumultuous relationship, Pistorious’ penchant for guns, and purported previous ‘domestic incidents’ at the Pistorious residence swiftly followed.  By the time we woke up, our news feeds were full of articles speculating about Pistorious’ innocence.

David Banks, a British journalist and media law expert, describes how Twitter has thrust such a high-profile criminal case into the public arena: “We had, verdict, mitigation and aggravating circumstances all wrapped up in a morning on Twitter”, he writes in the Guardian.  The repercussions of social media on mainstream reporting have been huge.  In an attempt to stop readers abandoning professional journalism for social media ‘chatter’, newspapers have been forced publish elaborate details about the case, interviews with various members of the couple’s entourage and articles describing Pistorious’ personality. A quick glance at the ‘related articles’ section on coverage of the shooting by global media giants such as the Daily Telegraph, BBC World, the Times of India and of course, South Africa’s News 24 reveals a myriad of catchy titles designed to satisfy our insatiable hunger for more of the gory details.  Editorial freedom has arguably been redefined as mainstream media strikes a balance between providing impartial, factual reporting that is still sufficiently gripping (and partisan) enough to capture the attention of readers in a digital marketplace flooded with controversial opinion. (In fact, the media’s role as a reliable source amidst the overwhelming volume of information accessible to readers is arguably rendered even more vital.)

Banks’ article dismisses claims that media coverage of this nature could compromise Pistorious’ right to a fair trial. (In South Africa, he will be tried by a judge – not a jury – and judges are supposed to be ‘above’ the influence of the media. For more on this, check out some interesting commentary concerning the influence of media on judges by Simon Hetherington on Halsbury’s Laws website.)  However, the case highlights the controversy surrounding the extent to which media should fall within the realm of the law.  In the UK alone, high-profile media law cases are front page news and they have provoked fierce debate about the need for internet regulation on an international level.  Restricting freedom of expression in the name of privacy, intellectual property rights, libel and defamation protection and national security (to name but a few of the usual suspects) has aways been a hot topic – and rightly so.  Nevertheless, is the mere scope of the internet starting to render such arguments obsolete? David Banks’ own website boasts a fairly convincing argument that any practical attempt to eliminate prejudicial material would be impossible (and a shocking waste of time). This raises other issues that are worth considering: if so much information is freely available, can we not argue that citizens are becoming more discerning (and thus, less likely to be influenced by such ‘prejudicial material’)?  Hetherington goes a step further by wondering if we need to reevaluate what justice looks like and claiming that perhaps, judges ought to be in tune with what the rest of us mere mortals are exposed to:

“…perhaps the human factor does actually need to be a factor in the administration of justice. Guidance may be taken from a widely accepted view that the interests of the law are best satisfied by a judiciary representative of the community: a community which… reads the newspapers, watches the television, surfs the internet, follows tweets and blogs and accesses media of every kind, designed to inform and influence alike… We cannot – and possibly should not – expect them to be utterly immune to their impact.”

He is not alone in suggesting that the digital world in which we live demands that we challenge traditional views of media regulation and governmental censorship.  Rebecca MacKinnon, former CNN journalist and director of the Committee to Protect Journalists delivered a thought-provoking TED talk on ‘taking back the internet’ and the need for ‘citizen centric’ government.  Some interesting food for thought and a glimpse into what the world may look like for the next generation.

As for Oscar Pistorious, it remains to be seen whether the South African legal system (and Pistorius’ London-based PR team, led by Stuart Higgins) can avoid the seemingly inevitable ‘trial by media‘ – what some call the modern day lynch mob – that will ultimately determine his fate.

Additional resources:

Internet Regulation: A digital cold war? The Economist Dec. 14th 2012 

UNESCO Freedom of Expression portal