I do not recall that in 1910 there was a smiling young woman waiting outside London’s Old Bailey to greet Dr Crippen. Today, we are confronted by a picture of a young woman handing Oscar Pistorius a bouquet of flowers – despite the fact that whatever the trial verdict, he brutally killed his girlfriend.
Crippen, the first criminal to be captured with the aid of wireless communication, was hanged in 1910 for the murder of his wife. The trial received enormous media coverage, not least because of the manhunt that ensued when Crippen tried to flee to Canada. The ship’s captain grew suspicious and informed the owners by telegraph. They passed the word to Scotland Yard and the fugitive was pursued across the Atlantic before being arrested. Every moment was captured by a swarm of reporters.
In his essay “Decline of the English Murder” published in the weekly Tribune in 1946, British novelist George Orwell called it the kind of dramatic story no novelist would have dared to make up. And no novelist could have made up what we are hearing from the trial of Oscar Pistorius, in which fame and stardom seem to be clouding the issue.
In Fame: What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity (2010), Tom Payne argues that humans have always been obsessed with fame and stardom. For all the contemporary hand-wringing over a culture overwhelmed by media portrayals and gossip, “The media, they’re us. Or at least the media are the people who buy newspapers and magazines… our tastes and desires affect how we take in the world around us.”
Because of film, the press, television, pop stardom, sports stardom, and the Internet, the cult of celebrity has never been more “in your face” than in recent decades. Today, being legitimately famous for an achievement in political, social, or cultural life seems to be confused with – if not outweighed by – the notoriety that leads to self-aggrandizement, corruption and the abuse of power. What is moral integrity if heads of state, politicians, religious leaders, corporate executives and famous people can act or commit crimes with impunity? What price morality if people are unaccountable for their actions?
The obscene spectacle of a woman handing Oscar Pistorius a bouquet of flowers outside the High Court in Pretoria (Thursday 10 April) and being embraced for her trouble invites the question: What did she think she was doing? Here is a man who – at the very least – fired four dum-dum bullets through a toilet door at a human being. Here is a man who – at the very worst – deliberately, calculatedly and brutally killed his girlfriend. Here is a man who has one chance and one chance only to avoid a life sentence for premeditated murder: to convince the judge and the gawping world that he is the victim. And he can only do so dramatically.
So we hear that “his mother slept with a gun under her pillow” and that his terror of the society in which he lives made him learn to shoot, to buy guns and ammunition, and to experiment with dum-dum bullets, whose sole purpose is to cause maximum damage to the human body. To try to gain sympathy he apologizes for his “mistake”, he retches publicly and repeatedly, he blames his girlfriend for their fights, he says he did not intend to pull the trigger or even to fire at an intruder, and that he does not know why he fired four shots through the toilet door. He casts himself as the victim.
This is the man – whose guilt or innocence has yet to be judged – for whom a woman waits in order to give him a bouquet of flowers. Why? Why? Why? And does it matter? Yes. The mask of celebrity conceals ambition, wealth and power, but it can also conceal selfishness, brutality and murder. We live in a world in which it is often difficult to see behind the mask. A world in which murderers get flowers.