Reconstruction : a Dangerous Game?
Charles de Olim
Line between entertainment and news becoming less clear as court reconstructions have fans glued to their sets
Schabir Shaik nearly starred in another legal drama: a local producer offered to reconstruct the court proceedings for e.tv.
This came after Durban High Court judge Hillary Squires last year refused to allow the free-to-air station and SABC's cameras in his courtroom.
He ruled that the presence of cameras would be "conspicuously intrusive" and a distraction even for those who were not giving evidence in the fraud and corruption trial.
A similar ruling was made by the no-nonsense Judge Rodney Melville, who is on the bench in the Michael Jackson child-molestation trial.
To make up for the lack of live visuals from the latter trial, some broadcasters have opted to reconstruct the day's events using actors.
There are proving popular with SA viewers, who are able to watch them on DStv's E! Entertainment and Sky News channels.
e.tv, however, declined to shake on the Shaik deal. Patrick Conroy, e.tv's national news editor, said, "We felt that it was not the right trial to introduce this form of coverage but we remain open to the concept."
And, there is an outside chance that cameras could be allowed to capture "at least parts of the proceedings", such as closing statements and the judgment in the Shaik trial, as Squires said he would consider a future request from e.tv.
For the Jackson case, however, nothing has been left to chance in order to re-create the authentic court setting.
Lookalike actors take the roles of the lawyers, witnesses, even of Jackson himself, in the daily instalments.
Court transcripts from the day's hearings are packaged into slick, half-hour scripts for the actors and quicker than a Jackson fan can scream "Michael!", the reconstructed trial updates millions of viewers around the world on the day's events in court.
The next high-profile case therefore may see a local channel get in on the reconstructed trial act. But what are its legal implications in the South African context?
"Publicity is seen as fundamental to the administration of justice," explained Pamela Stein, The Star's legal counsellor.
"But it is limited in certain cases in South African law. Disclosing the identity of minors in cases involving indecent assault, and disclosing the identity of the witnesses would not be permitted in South Africa." But not all the broadcasters are champing at the bit for the reality TV version of covering news current events.
Speaking in his personal capacity, head of SABC's TV news, Jimi Matthews, was not keen on the idea.
"There has to be a distinction between entertainment and news. I don't think the two are interchangeable," he said.
Matthews further pointed out possible ethical dilemmas, particularly for journalists that might come into play.
"Where do you draw the line? If you miss a story, is it okay then to reconstruct the event? I think this type of 'news coverage' compromises the credibility of your product."
Franz Kruger, a leading author on journalistic ethics, agreed that the reconstructed format "is a bit of a hybrid (of entertainment and news)".
However, he felt there was no ethical harm provided the programme clearly states that it is "constructed" and the editing process of the transcript and eventual synopses reflects what took place in the court case.
With acknowledgements to Charles de Olim and The Star.