When does media coverage of high-profile events tread into the murky waters of affecting the outcome of a court case or person’s reputation?
That question has popped up in the charges against and legal proceedings of South African Olympic hero Oscar Pistorius, who is accused of killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp — just as it has in just about every notorious case since the beginning of time, or perhaps since Gutenberg invented the printing press.
That issue was at the heart of the change of venue that moved the Rodney King-beating trial from Los Angeles County’s San Fernando Valley just 25 miles up the freeway to the city of Simi Valley in the adjacent county of Ventura. The impact of media coverage was also asserted in just about every other high-profile case in the Los Angeles Superior Court during my 1991-2002 tenure there as information officer and media liaison, including the 1995 O.J.Simpson trial.
South Africa has at least one anti-bias measure in its toolbox that puts the onus on the news media there that U.S. courts don’t have. They can hold the news media contempt, if it’s determined that coverage has created bias. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/feb/19/oscar-pistorius-media-south-africa-contempt
True, the criteria in South Africa’s contempt provision have become less intimidating and subjective in recent years, thanks to a 2007 review of the provision by that country’s highest court. The threshold before the review permitted contempt charges “if a report ‘tended’ to prejudice the administration of justice.”
Such a measure in the United States would have chilled the news media right out of the country’s courthouses. It’s so arbitrary, I can’t think of a single trial of significant public interest in which one side or the other couldn’t have made a stickable argument for excluding media coverage or that might have led to the news media being liable for contempt.
The South African high court, however, amended the provision so that now “…the question a court must ask is whether there will be ‘real risk’ of substantial prejudice to the administration of justice,” which raises the bar considerably for all parties in a court case. It, in essence, says that “The question must now be decided in the context of a balancing exercise between two competing constitutional rights: the right to a fair trial and the right to freedom of expression,” according to The Guardian article.
I see a substantial difference in the wording of the pre- and post-high court rulings. But even though the current criteria brings the South African standard closer to the Unites States standard, holding the news media in contempt for their coverage of a case rare to non-existent in this country, thanks to the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of a free press. And fewer than a handful of cases have been permitted retrials on the grounds that media coverage affected the verdict. Billie Sol Estes and Sam Sheppard, are the only ones that come immediately to my mind.