Who knew that on the morning we woke up believing that President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address would be the biggest event on the South African news diary that it would be eclipsed by one of the most sensational murder stories, ever. Or at least since OJ Simpson rode his Bronco down the LA highways with media helicopters driving him on.
Our Paralympic hero, the man who conquered not only his disability, but the international athletics world, had been accused of murdering his girlfriend, law graduate and model, Reeva Steenkamp. Oscar Pistorius booted every other news story off the front pages and television screens of the world’s media.
Of course it wasn’t long before media commentators, professional and not-so-much, accused the media of making up stories, particularly one that Pistorius had allegedly mistaken Steenkamp for a burglar. Bad media! Bad journalism! Why weren’t the facts verified? Typical of South Africa’s poor journalism standards was the thread that ran through the social networks.
Beeld was the paper that broke the story. This is not a tabloid that speculates and shoots off its mouth without checking the facts, but a respected broadsheet. There was a whiff of something not quite right on this one. It smelt of spin, of early damage control, if you like. Put your angle out there and sow the seeds of doubt. Muddy the waters. It’s a classic tactic of a clever spin doctor.
Grubstreet’s Gill Moodie spoke to Beeld’s news editor, Pieter du Toit, who confirmed that they’d received the news from two separate and solid sources before they ran with the story. Pistorius’ father, Henke, continues to put that story forward. “When you are a sportsman, you act even more on instinct,” he said. “It’s instinct – things happen and that’s what you do,” he said, repeating that his son thought there was an intruder in the house.
Perhaps commentators and the media itself should wait before giving in to the knee-jerk reaction that says South Africa’s media is bad, that it was shoddy journalism. In this case, it seems it was less bad journalism and more good spin that ensured that was the first version of the (alleged) murder to hit the headlines.