By Hagen Engler
As a journalist, it’s not often that one gets the chance to feel what it’s like on the other side of the media fence, to really be part of the story. Sure, journalists can lapse into that hacks-interviewing-hacks format that is the staple of so much TV news nowadays, but those guys aren’t really the story. The story is still out there, somewhere else.
I recently got so badly sucked into a story, it wasn’t out there any more. It was in my lounge, in my car, in my front garden. For a while, I couldn’t get out of it. It was the killing of Reeva Steenkamp.
I was lucky enough to work with Reeva during her life. I was editing a magazine, and she was a model. So we worked together. We met at a casting, where we rekindled an acquaintance begun back in Port Elizabeth, our hometown. After that, there were more castings, and then some photo shoots.
She was an excellent model. Beautiful, sure, but also blessed with an understanding of shoot production and people skills that ensured everybody enjoyed working with her.
After that tragic incident that changed people’s lives, and rocked the SA media landscape, I found myself in an odd position. I had worked with Reeva, I knew her. But I hadn’t been so close that I was debilitated by her passing.
I was aware that her close friends and family were shattered by their loss. I felt some people should say something about her, what she was like as a person.
So I tweeted something. Three words, along the lines of “She was lovely”.This precipitated a DM: Did you know this girl? Would you do an interview?
I said yes. And thus began my spell in the media spotlight as “Someone who’s prepared to speak”.
I did some interviews. The interviews precipitated more interviews. And the more I did, the more my number was passed around by journos around the world. I soon realized that, thanks to the global fame of Paralympian Oscar Pistorius – now accused of Reeva’s murder – the appetite for news of the case was insatiable.
In the days after her death, I could mark the passage of the sun across the face of the earth by the calls I was getting on my cell. It went New Zealand, Japan, Australia, Singapore, Norway, France, UK, USA… I was woken up at 4am for radio phoners, newspapers called constantly – the Independent, the Mail, the Telegraph, The Guardian, L’Equipe… I forget who all.
I was ushered into TV studios by local stringers, interviewed in restaurants, in hotels, at people’s houses, in my lounge, my patio, my garden, on the phone in my car, in the laundry courtyard while my wife bathed the baby… I’m a journalist, so I sympathized with these poor reporters scratching around for someone who’d known this woman. I wanted to help, but things were getting out of hand.
And every time I was telling the same story: I knew Reeva from PE. We worked together. She was awesome. She was poised for something better, but then she died. I tried writing a definitive piece summarising these points and posted it online. I hoped I could to just refer journalists to that. But that only encouraged them. They’d call me up and say, “We want to interview you. Just say what you said in that piece.”
It got to a point where I had to start saying no. And that’s when these reporters began whipping out every manipulative weapon in their journalistic armoury. And I saw what it’s like on the other side of the news. I was now part of the story. And they were going to get it out of me, one way or another.
Don’t you want to be on international TV, they asked, before an audience of millions? Wouldn’t you like to meet a global news personality? Someone needs to speak for Reeva. It’s all Oscar, we need her side of the story… Can you please help us out, no one wants to speak!
Where can we get pictures? Remember, we met the once? We’ll pay you for your time (that never happened) I got calls from correspondents who sounded cute and sexy on the phone. Cool people you wouldn’t mind having a beer with…
Softie that I am, I’d always break down and meet them. Sometimes a TV crew would occupy my home for four or five hours. I met crews in their homes, at restaurants, hotels. And after a while I began to feel some kind of way.
Sure, I was telling Reeva’s side of the story, but I felt a little, well, used. Of course, my experience of media pressure must be a fraction of what her family are subjected to. And the story needs to be told. But I was also getting a taste of my own medicine. I was getting to be the story and not to be chasing the story, as I often do as a journalist.
It’s not for nothing that predatory metaphors are used for this process. I’ve often prowled locations, scouting for interview subjects, hunted down a lead… I know the excitement of the chase, and the real excitement of tracking down one’s target, getting the story out of them, even if it’s a soft, human-interest one.
On assignment, you can sense when you’ve got enough content to make a story. Then you withdraw and go file, still rushing a little on the post-chase adrenaline. Got the story. Got the story.
And the prey? Your target, your interview subject? Well, we sit in our lounge, a little bewildered, like we’ve been through a hedge backwards, living the anticlimax and feeling a little unimpressed with ourselves.
People have probed you, extracted something from the inner recesses of your brain and your emotions and then left. These ones were from France, Ireland, the USA… It’s a little like an alien abduction.
You experience lost time. One minute you were normal. Then you were whisked off to the Westcliff by this American crew, debriefed by various handlers and fixers, placed in a holding phase with some other interview subjects, processed and then released back into the wild.
And maybe one day South Africa will feel the same.
My time as an interview target is mercifully over, and perhaps I deserved it. Now that the trial itself is on, there is enough content for the media world to feast on. But one day that will be over and the planet’s news spotlight will shift away from us.
It will be a time of some relief, but also ongoing soul-searching. By the time the media – local and international – are done with us, almost every question will have been asked. What does this mean? How does it reflect South African society? What does it say about gender relations? In how many ways is it a race thing? How is our legal system? How is our media?
By the time all our dirty laundry has been ventilated for the world to inspect, a lot of us will be left sitting in our lounges with serious Channel 199 withdrawal. You might look and feel a bit like I did once the world’s media were finished with me. Wide-eyed. Paranoid. Embarrassed. Exploited. Still obsessed. Musing, “You know, I’m not quite sure what it says about our society. I’m not sure it says anything. But now I can’t stop thinking about it.”
This story first ran in The Sunday Times