I seem to recall from my history lessons all those decades ago that at some point in the development of justice, kings and judges used to call on crowds of the great unwashed to deliver a verdict largely based on hearsay, rumour and bias.
Eventually, in modern times, justice involved a judge and a jury of one’s peers or just a judge and a brace of assessors.
There was a time when the media and the public at large were restricted by the sub-judice rule, which meant not being able to discuss certain aspects of a trial until it was over.
There is still today a generally accepted constitutional norm in most so-called civilised countries such as South Africa that someone is innocent until proved guilty.
But, that all seems to be gone now.
The advent of interactive multimedia platforms has pretty much consigned all that is fair and honourable in our Constitution and justice system to the scrap heap.
Politicians are probably the worst offenders in terms of assuming guilt and even the advertising industry’s own regulatory body openly practices guilt before innocence.
Then of course, there are the mass media which have become heavily influenced by the advent of social media and the role of ‘citizen journalism’ that allows the great unwashed to make their voices heard by hundreds of thousands of their ilk through Facebook, Twitter and myriad other digital platforms.
Talk radio has become another platform for character assassination and knee-jerk judgements although I have to say most of the talk show hosts I listen to try and adjudicate discussions to bring about a modicum of fairness.
The thing is, I get the very distinct feeling that society has drifted back into the judicial dark ages and one has to ask what influence this highly visible, often knee-jerk and pretty much always biased outpouring of public opinion has on our judges and magistrates.
The Pistorius and Dewani trials are prime examples of trial by society. I specifically did not use the timeworn expression of ‘trial by media’ because in almost every case the medium is merely the messenger.
I do not believe for a minute that one can blame the mass media for capitalising on this sort of judicial anarchy. Media companies are businesses and their success depends entirely on proving readers, listeners and viewers with information they want. And if the consumer wants and thrives on the exposing of celebrities and watching former heroic icons being torn apart in court, then one can hardly blame the media for providing the channels for consumers to indulge their opinions, subjectivity, voyeurism and bias.
Social media has given the public the opportunity to interact with both the mass media and large groups of like-minded people.
And while one might argue that the principle of freedom of speech is being stretched to its absolute limit, there is very little anyone can do to stem the growing flow of public opinion no matter how biased, partisan, controversial or disparaging it might be.
I do not for a minute believe that a court allowing live TV and radio as well as digital messaging has any influence on a trial. In fact, I believe that the Pistorius trial has been all that much fairer by the public being able to see what is going on and to share the emotions of those on trial and giving evidence.
It would be impossible to expect the consumer to stick to any judicial rules with regard to comment and opinion. Short of banning the entire internet, the public will continue to voice its opinion, however biased and unfair.
The mass media’s role in all this is not exclusive but very much driven by the demands of its consumers.
All one can do is hope that the judges and assessors who deliberate these highly publicised trials have the strength of character, experience and skills to avoid being influenced by public and media opinion and to dispense justice fairly.
Follow Chris Moerdyk on Twitter @chrismoerdyk
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