Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Paddy Power odds on Oscar Pistorius trial is courting disaster

Oscar Pistorius sits with his head in his hands in the dock on the third day of his trial at the high court in Pretoria, South Africa, Wednesday, March 5, 2014. Pistorius is charged with murder for the shooting death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine's Day in 2013. (AP Photo/Siphiwe Sibeko, Pool)
Oscar Pistorius sits with his head in his hands in the dock on the third day of his trial at the high court in Pretoria, South Africa, Wednesday, March 5, 2014. Pistorius is charged with murder for the shooting death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine's Day in 2013. (AP Photo/Siphiwe Sibeko, Pool)

It would be a fair bet that when the marketing team at Paddy Power draws up its advertising slogans, sensitivity is not always first on the list of priorities.

For advertising to work it has to be noticed. Taking care to avoid causing offence of any conceivable kind may be highly commendable. But it is also likely to curtail your ability to get your message out there.

So I doubt there's a lot of regret right now at the betting firm's HQ about the wording of an ad featuring a "money back if he walks" offer on wagers on the outcome of the trial of Oscar Pistorius for the murder of Reeva Steenkamp. Or about the internet furore this example of marketing good taste has prompted in recent days.

Controversy and criticism are all grist to the publicity mill.

Or as the ad itself frankly puts it: "As an international media circus descends on South Africa, Paddy Power's marketing department has entered the fray."

Critics complain the ad trivialises violence against women.

Fair point. The thing is, exactly the same argument could be advanced against what P Power rightly identifies as the international media circus which has descended upon Pretoria.

Whether we like to think of it that way or not, the trial of a man for the killing (premeditated or accidental) of a woman is being transformed into something approaching light entertainment.

A legal soap opera that will have us bound to the box for weeks encouraging us all to unleash our inner Kavanagh QC.

The judge who made the ruling that it could be broadcast points out: "Court proceedings are in fact public, and this objective must be recognised ..."

On the plus side then, you have noble aims such as the desire to be open and to allow justice not only to be done but to be seen to be done.

But on the downside, that inevitable aforementioned circus.

We have some previous experience of just such a circus. It would be fair to say one of the TV highlights of the Nineties was that electric moment in a Californian courthouse when the foreman of the jury announced the verdict in a long running drama that had captivated millions of viewers around the world for 133 days.

"We, the jury find the defendant Orenthal James Simpson not guilty of the crime of murder ..."

That absurdity was the culmination of months of wall-to-wall coverage during which the victims were lost and the viewing public wavered between debate about race and critiquing lawyers hairdos. Remember the Dancing Itos – a troupe of dancers who appeared in a comedy sketch on the Jay Leno show dressed as trial judge Lance Ito? Makes the Paddy Power ad seem almost tasteful.

Lawyers were accused of playing to the camera and there were claims that the trial would not have gone on for so very long had it not been televised.

What is indisputable is that in the end, the terrible crime at the centre of the Simpson show trial had been not only trivialised but entirely sidelined and the television coverage undeniably had much to do with that.

In the UK there are currently plans for some limited access to cameras in courts in England and Wales and some access has already been granted in Scotland.

But in Northern Ireland Justice Minister David Ford has announced that for the time being anyway, there are no plans to open the courts to TV. For now we will have to make do with the efforts of courthouse sketch artists.

The Pistorius trial, expected to last three weeks, is hardly on a par with the OJ circus. Not least in that the defendant may well be innocent and his girlfriend's death the awful accident he claims.

But again it puts the spotlight on this whole question of the televising of court proceedings. Is it right, fair, offensive? Does it open up the legal process or devalue justice by turning trials into prime time pap?

The jury, to coin a cliche, is still out on that one.

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