Friday, April 11, 2014
BOB GARFIELD: This week, the world watched as South African Paralympics hero and accused murderer, Oscar Pistorius testified in his own defense on the shooting death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.
OSCAR PISTORIUS: My lady, that's the moment that everything changed. I thought that there was a burglar that was gaining entry into my home.
BOB GARFIELD: The courtroom spectacle is a first for South Africa, which, at least until now, lacked the crime and punishment media infrastructure that has grown here since the 1995 OJ Simpson media circus. No court TV, no Nancy Grace, no Judge Judy, even. But the Pistorius case demanded solutions and there is one, the Oscar Pistorius Trial Channel, a pop-up satellite TV channel devoted 24/7 to the trial. George Mazarakis heads the channel. George, welcome to the show.
GEORGE MAZARAKIS: Thank you very much, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: This is not just a camera and a technician. Can you tell me how many people are involved in doing what?
GEORGE MAZARAKIS: It comes to about 189 people. We have cameras in court, but we don’t have them manned. This was quite important to us, to put unmanned cameras in court. We have a team in Pretoria, outside the court, and on a roof nearby, where we’ve set up a studio, and a major studio in Johannesburg with anchors and a full plethora of evening analytical shows. The signal from court is distributed to everybody who wants it.
BOB GARFIELD: To get approval from the court to broadcast from within the courtroom itself, that's a pretty high hurdle. How did you get the permission?
GEORGE MAZARAKIS: Well, it was quite a process. And our approach was basically that a) we would provide a fully- dedicated channel which would allow us to cover all the content, live, unedited, and during the course of the night we would repeat the entire proceedings of court unedited, allowing us then to do analytical work in between, which we felt would be to the benefit of the general public, and that was partially responsible for the state giving us their support.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, they did not give you exactly carte blanche. There are some limitations to what you can broadcast from the trial. Can you tell me what you cannot do?
GEORGE MAZARAKIS: The Pistorius team opposed us on absolutely everything. And one of the things we can’t do is actually show Oscar during his evidence and cross examination. Nor can we show any witnesses who didn't want to be seen.
BOB GARFIELD: We hear the audio feed but we don't see their faces.
GEORGE MAZARAKIS: Exactly, so we were allowed the audio, and we were allowed the images of the rest of the courtroom. And it's worked remarkably well. It’s the theater of the mind, I suppose, because you see the advocates asking the questions and you see the judge’s reactions, and you see the reactions of the rest of the people in the courtroom, but you don’t get to see the witness. And, in Oscar’s case, we don't get to see him crying but we certainly hear him, and we hear him reaching and vomiting, and whatever it is that he was doing.
BOB GARFIELD: If the trial telecast itself is unfiltered, there is plenty of opportunity for filtering in the reporting and the commentary that goes on between courtroom sessions. There is the risk that it becomes a kind of pulp nonfiction. How straight are you playing it?
GEORGE MAZARAKIS: We play it terribly straight. We’ve been very careful about taking a serious analytical look through the eyes of legal experts, legal academics, former judges and the top criminal lawyers in the country. The audience has taken to it with great gusto, I think mainly because most people are familiar with perhaps American television dramas and sometimes BBC television dramas and they’ve seen other judicial systems at play. But most ordinary people aren’t familiar with the legal processes even within their own country. It's really gripped the public imagination, people, you know, literally missing work in order to be at home for when Oscar Pistorius himself is on the stand. And I think it's partially because it's a straight down-the-line take on it, rather than a tabloid approach.
BOB GARFIELD: Now that you have this infrastructure built and you have educated the South African audience how to watch real-life trials, do you think there's an ongoing market for this kind of coverage? And if yes, do you feel confident that the producers can resist the temptation to go down the tabloid road?
GEORGE MAZARAKIS: Most certainly, there's an appetite in the audience for more of this kind of material and we, as producers, certainly intend to develop it further. I think it's vitally important in a modern democracy and in a brand-new one, such as the South African one, where our freedoms are newly-won, that we protect this particular right, just as we do all our other constitutional rights. And for that reason and given that, in fact, it is still up to a trial judge to say yes or no to coverage, as long as that particular control is adhered to by the judicial system, I think the media will have no choice but to behave.
BOB GARFIELD: George, thank you very much.
GEORGE MAZARAKIS: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: George Mazarakis is the executive producer of the Carte Blanche program, and of the pop-up, Oscar Pisorius Trial Channel.