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Updated 03 March 2014

Psychiatrist: Why Oscar deserves to be on TV

Should celebrities be able to choose to switch off the media machine when it doesn't suit them? CyberShrink thinks not.

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How could the court simply accept that Oscar Pistorius would not have a fair trial if it was televised in its entirety, asks CyberShrink.

Professor M.A. Simpson, aka Health24’s CyberShrink, is a psychiatrist who has testified as an expert witness in many trials. Below are his comments about the upcoming trial and the accompanying media hype.

I was concerned that in the otherwise very thoughtful and wise judgement about media access to the Pistorius trial,  the assertions of his lawyers that his ability to have a fair trial would be compromised if he and his witnesses were televised while testifying, were accepted and assumed to be true, without proper expert and cross-examined evidence being provided that this was indeed so.

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I have not been able to find convincing evidence that such a negative impact is at all likely. Especially with the carefully unobtrusive methods used to provide such coverage should merely lead to liars continuing to lie and honest people continuing to tell the truth, at least as they see it. There should be no impact at all on the fairness of the trial. If it is not televised, the broad public could assume that those who opposed it have something to hide. 

Justice should be seen to be done
There is a good reason why we believe that justice should be done and seen to be done - it is essential to assess a witness and their testimony properly and to be able to watch them as they speak. A printed transcript tells you some of what you need to know, and an audio feed that lets you hear their voice, pauses, changes of pitch, and so on.  But visual coverage is needed to see how their facial expression changes when reacting to different questions, and their general demeanour.

This is one of the reasons we don't allow someone to testify while wearing a face-covering veil. If the accused and all of his witnesses are allowed to ask not to be televised, without extending the same facility to all state witnesses, that would be unfair. 

The huge problem assumed in so severely limiting visual coverage of testimony has not been described in other situations where the televising of trials have been allowed. If anything, a handful of witnesses and quite a few lawyers may enjoy themselves rather too much and show off and play to the gallery, rather than being inhibited or distracted. 

What causes the real stress for Oscar?
Will witnesses be unduly stressed? No, that's unlikely. What is undoubtedly stressful is being cross-examined by the opposing lawyers, but this is an essential element of any fair trial, and nobody has been daft enough to suggest abolishing that. Of course Oscar will be stressed - by standing trial facing such serious charges, and needing to testify.  I very much doubt that the televising of his evidence would significantly add to the inevitable degree of stress he will unavoidably face anyway. Such trials have, according to our law, to be public rather than secret, and the stress of facing a courtroom of people is also unavoidable.

The experience of reality TV is very relevant. Apart from the fact that they select conflicting exhibitionists to provide fake drama, most people who have been on camera for even fairly short periods, and even where the media equipment and lights were rather obtrusive, have found, that you surprisingly soon forget the cameras and the audience, and concentrate on what you are there to do. 

Celebrities and hype
Lastly, a look at the inevitable complaint from the defenders of any celebrity accused, of ‘trial by media’. Let's be frank. Celebrities adore trial by media so long as they're confident of being found not guilty. In most cases they hire publicists, PR puffers, brand managers, media manipulators, and everyone else they can find, to deliberately and carefully manipulate the media in their favour to increase their fame or notoriety, their prestige, their name-recognition,  and to increase the prices they can charge for their primary work, whatever that may be. They seek to control what the media will say about them and very often succeed, as its easy for lazy journalists to mildly revise and reprint what the media managers give them. 

What they object to most strenuously, are situations in which they cannot confidently control all the information about them which is reaching the public. This they denounce as trial by media, when its usually just the exposure of information and speculation which they aren’t able to control fully, and which might be unfavourable to them.

They can't be allowed to have huge media attention whenever they want it and whenever they can use it beneficially,  and then expect the rights of a private citizen when that seems more profitable for them. Its often in these very situations that the public gets access to some more neutral, and yes, even unfavourable, coverage of a media darling.  That balances a situation, rather than applying an exclusively negative bias. If you choose to profit from media attention, you need to just be brave when it's unfavourable. It’s not a tap the celebrity is entitled to switch on and off at their convenience.  
 

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