Thursday 22 February 2018

Celebrity lives, deaths and trials will always absorb us

Why are we and the rest of the world so gripped by the court proceedings against athlete Oscar Pistorius?

Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius
Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius

Patricia Casey

IT IS reaching a global audience of millions. It has spawned a new television channel which overnight has syndicated its programme to the world's largest television network.

Some 180 freelance journalists, producers, researchers and presenters are on hand to deliver 24 hour coverage along with twitter feeds, live streaming, highlights, panel discussion and commentary.

It has become the largest channel in South Africa in a mere four weeks.

It's called the Oscar Pistorius Trial – a Carte Blanche Channel.

This channel is meeting the insatiable need to experience every moment of this trial. And the moments, as they tick by, are gruelling for Reeva Steencamp's parents and family, as well as for Pistorius and his family.

This is indeed a white knuckle thriller. The usual thriller is designed to have a good ending, but in this one there will be no such positive outcome.

Riva won't come back, her family will continue to grieve. Pistorius, if found guilty of murder, which he denies, would seem set to serve a long, closely watched prison sentence in conditions that any prison reform group would have nightmares about.

When his time is up, he could come out broken and possibly broke.

If the verdict is one of manslaughter, as he is pleading, he will leave the courtroom traumatised by his ordeal, with his career probably ruined. He will be broken and potentially broke.

But why is one man's court room ordeal being watched with such zeal? Is it mere ghoulish voyeurism?

Much like the gruesome beheadings during the French Revolution, celebrity trials are always a draw for the crowds. The OJ Simpson trial made history as the first televised trial.

And, in Steenkamp and Pistorius, here were two such people – in love and one now dead. One was a model and contestant in reality TV shows, the other a hero who had overcome one of the most grave of disabilities – the amputation of his legs as a baby – to become an Olympian sprinter. Add to that mix a death – whether deliberate or accidental – and the result is intoxicating.

The reporting of the Pistorius trial has eclipsed the sex abuse trial of a man known for his attachment to, and work with, celebrities in Britain, the publicist Max Clifford, who denies 11 indecent assault charges. On Tuesday, the jury in his case retired to deliberate a verdict.

The lives of celebrities always attract us. They seem to have it all: wealth, beauty, or at least striking good looks, adulation by large chunks of the public and a lifestyle that most can only dream of. So, when there is a mismatch between our image of the lives they live and the way they actually conduct themselves, we want to find out more, to know why and to recalibrate.

We can begin to recognise that, perhaps, we are this dissonance. We can then take comfort from the fact that they are not perfect after all, and can begin to count our blessings. We create a 'them and us' in our psyche and we settle for 'us'.

Into the mix of celebrity, add a tragic death. Like detective novels, we are drawn to real life stories of death, because they aid us in understanding why and how some of these occur. We fear for our lives when we learn of yet another shooting or stabbing. Our safety becomes a cause of deep concern.

But by knowing the circumstances surrounding the death, and of the person who is alleged to have done it, we can, yet again, create a 'them and us'; 'them' representing the person who died in a particular set of conditions and 'us' in our homes, living differently. Ergo, we are safe!

We are trying to create "the just world Phenomenon" – a term referring to the tendency of people to rationalise or explain injustice, often by blaming the parties or circumstances involved. In this way, we can believe in our own invulnerability.

Apart from the needs of individuals to understand how celebrities live, and to believe in their own safety, what other purpose does televising the trial have for society? It perhaps helps us to appreciate that justice is being delivered, fairly and openly. It may reinforce a belief in objectivity and impartiality. Above all, it may help us appreciate that, in circumstances such as these, there are no winners, just losers and even greater losers, suffering and more suffering.

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