Oscar Pistorius, charged this last week with the murder of his girlfriend, is a flawed person. Highly competitive and driven with –as has emerged in the days since Reeva Steenkamp died – a love of the finer things in life his success has allowed him to enjoy. He is a man, almost like the archetypal European playboy, with a fondness for guns, fast cars and speedboats. But why shouldn’t he be? After all, Pistorius is the ‘fastest man on no legs’ as it has been crudely put; an international icon both for his sporting achievements and his large personality. To suggest that anyone could achieve this status without a compulsive, neurotic drive to succeed and an ego that must be able to soak up praise and criticism in equal measure is to be naive. Equally, why should we not expect such success, achieved by a man still in his twenties, to have gone to his head?
And yet Pistorius’s flaws have been wheeled before us these last few days as if to offer some explanation for the actions he is accused of. Next to every article about a ‘hero fallen,’ there is a snide sidebar talking about his ‘darker side’ or listing events such as his 2009 speedboat crash, vague innuendo about ‘domestic incidents’ and the reprinting of quotes on guns from old transcriptions of interviews that were ignored at the time. Aspects of Pistorius the man that were once part of his ‘character’ or ‘charisma’ are now half-shaped accusations hanging over him, fed to the people en masse as if they provide some explanation for a murder.
In his essay Light Entertainment published in the London Review of Books, Andrew O’Hagan brilliantly details how the media can build up a man to be perfect, the model of a light entertainer, and how society at large, in its search for whole, unbroken role models goes merrily along with this. O’Hagan is writing about Lionel Gamlin (once one of the BBC’s leading ‘light entertainers’), sexual abuse at the BBC and by extension, Jimmy Saville. Despite this, the salient point is relevant when discussing Pistorius or any other individual that finds themselves standing upon the pedestal of public adulation.
Being perfect sells. It sells newspapers and magazines and it sells an image. The only thing that is better than perfection in the eyes of the media is if great adversity has had to be crossed first (such as the adversity of losing both your legs beneath the knees as a toddler). Whether you are winning Paralympic gold a few weeks after becoming the first disabled person to compete in the Olympics, or spending a great part of your life ‘fixing it’ for children, the media has no interest in exploring the darker sides of your character. In turn the consumers of this golden haze have no interest in knowing the cobwebbed corners of a celebrity’s life. One cannot hope to make a role model out of someone who shares your flaws so they are brushed under the proverbial rug, left to moulder and grow out of the public imagination; until one day they come out, they always come out, and everyone acts shocked. Why did no one notice? is the cry that goes up, conveniently forgetting that no one wanted to ask or ever to look.
The difference between Pistorius and Saville is of course that by the time the media turned on the entertainer he was already dead and had already committed his crimes. Pistorius is alive and, at least in the eyes of the law, innocent until proven guilty. Whatever the media prints about Saville is, however traumatic, old news and serves only to shovel more dirt upon an already filthy reputation. What we are witnessing in the treatment of Oscar Pistorius is another, far more loathsome event, the trial by media of a man already undergoing trial by a court of law. Every detail of his life will be picked over and ‘inside sources’ (surely the most hollow and fake term in journalism) will tell of shocking new developments, many of which have already proven to be factually inaccurate, or flaws in the man’s personality that we all missed, which should have told us this was coming.
This entire show, for a show or performance is all it is, will be played out in an outraged, condescending tone that will ignore every scrap of print or film from previous years that painted Pistorius as his public alter ego –the ‘Blade Runner’ who had overcome adversity to stand atop his own sport and stride, quite literally, where no other amputee had gone before. In its stead will be a new public face for Pistorius, the man who was always going to do something like this. If the papers run out of stories they will turn upon the victim too, although with The Sun going to print with Steenkamp’s near naked body on its front page the day after her death perhaps they already have.
What will we, the readers, say about the new Pistorius? We will, for the most part, accept it. To do otherwise is to admit that for the past four, five, six years we have idolised a man who, whatever we thought, was not perfect. We could never have ‘seen this coming’ but if we join the retrospective hunt for evidence of a psychopathy beneath calm exterior we can ignore the need to admit our part in the affair. Perhaps for those who truly adored Oscar Pistorius it might even feel good to tear through his past life and sit glued to the coverage of his trial.
Pisotrius is not unique in the treatment he has received from the public. Actors, politicians, writers and the celebrities of reality television are all targets of our admiration. The list of public figures that have been raised to impossible heights by a public that has then watched them fall is a long one. We, the British have become masters of this art and we are also the world leaders in ignore our role in this sordid media cycle.
The best example of this is the treatment of Diana Spencer (better known as the Princess of Wales), a woman whose public image could not have been purer had she grown wings and ascended to heaven. The media, driven by the public’s desire to live her life for themselves through the printed press, pursued Diana quite literally to her death. The outpouring of public grief that followed was described by Christopher Hitchens as an example of Britain’s ‘fetish’ of the Royal Family. In this Hitchens is wrong, for while we as a people may have a strange and unhealthy attachment to the House of Windsor, the tributes and flowers that marked the weeks after her death were more actions of a guilty public conscience. Even now, over a decade on from the Parisian car crash that killed Diana it is the paparazzi that are blamed for her death (discounting conspiracy theories) and the fact is quietly ignored that had the public not demanded photos of the ex-Princess in every edition of the news, she would not have been so hounded. Whatever happens to Pistorius, he is destined to be another individual in a line of public figures whose fall from grace will continue to be a shock to us as long as we refuse to admit that such people are, like us, not perfect but broken in some way. That is not to say that one should not admire public figures for their qualities but that we must realise that the athletes and singers, writers and actors and King and Queens that give the world so much colour are just as human and you or me. To expect them to be perfect and not to feel the same pain or sadness that we do is inhuman at best.