Globetrotting reporter relives sensation in South Africa
CBJ old boy Andrew Plant was part of the press pack which jetted out to South Africa to report on one of the biggest stories of the year.
He was covering the trial of millionaire businessman Shrien Dewani who was ultimately cleared of plotting to murder his wife on honeymoon.
Mr Dewani walked free after being cleared of any part in the killing despite the judge ruling that many ‘unanswered questions’ still surrounded the case.
Andrew said: “This was the fourth time I’d been to South Africa on assignment in 2014. But even though I knew it could finish, I didn’t really expect the judge to make such a bold decision. It was the sort of broadcasting moment when your heart stops, and only starts again five hours later when you stop talking and begin to realise what just happened.”
The 35-year-old, who graduated with an MA in Television Journalism in 2004, added: “When a story like that breaks, you become the focus of demands from different outlets across the BBC, and they are all hungry. You’ll do a five-minute live for BBC News Channel, then get ‘switched’ straight to do the same again for BBC World. As soon as that’s finished, the talkback feed in your ear will immediately change to Radio 5 Live, then to BBC World Service. There is barely time to sip a coffee, let alone use the toilet – and it can last for hours.”
Since graduating from NTU in 2004, Andrew has worked for ITV Central News in Birmingham before moving to the BBC in the Channel Islands as a videojournalist. He then moved to BBC Points West where he became a senior reporter. Andrew now works for regional and national BBC News across TV and radio.
Andrew added: “It’s no exaggeration to say that my MA course at NTU changed everything for me. It was through the course that I learnt the skills I needed to work in a television newsroom. Work experience taught me to keep my foot in the door no matter how many knockbacks I got – and there were over 50 – before I finally landed some paid shifts in Birmingham. The last ten years have gone by in a blink, but I still rely on my training every single day.”
• The following is an article Andrew wrote for the BBC:
The first time I saw Shrien Dewani in court, it was his hair colour that struck me. The extradition process had been so extended, and Shrien Dewani out of sight for so long, that I’d pictured seeing him with his usual crop of thick, jet-black hair. But the years since Anni’s murder had sent the ageing process into fast-forward. That was in October, the first day of his trial, and the first time I saw the South African courts in action. Cameras are usually allowed into courtrooms here – unlike in the UK – at least until the judge comes in, when they have to leave. It’s how reporters get their shots for the night’s news. But on day one of Shrien Dewani’s trial the rules had been changed. No cameras were allowed, to protect the fragile mental health of a suspect who was both a prisoner here, and a patient too, housed in a South African psychiatric institute on the edge of Cape Town. But no-one had told the local TV crews of the new arrangement – and a dozen cameras burst into court, claiming it was their right to film Mr Dewani, and prompting a tense stand-off with the security guards, clad in blue jumpsuits and armed with Tasers, who patrol the courtrooms. Shrien Dewani and his family looked on, bemused and, I am sure, deeply uneasy. The security guards won, and his trial began. That was day one.
Since then there has been plenty to keep the media interested. The case is rarely off the front pages in Cape Town, vying for prominence with the trial of Oscar Pistorius, happening a thousand miles across country in Pretoria. Members of the public would queue from 8am on the front steps of the building, packing the courtroom backbenches two to every seat, and filling the small mezzanine public gallery to bursting point. This was a trial people in South Africa had doubted they would ever see. He’s rich, they told me. He’s from the UK. We never thought he would ever stand trial. So they were fascinated, and pleased I think, that Shrien Dewani was here at all. And this was a case with a theatrical element too; although Shrien himself was driven at speed, in a blacked-out car with a police escort, straight into the car park inside the bowels of the high court each morning, the Dewani family would walk into court every day, inevitably pursued by photographers. Minutes later, in a seemingly coordinated manoeuvre, Anni’s family would pull up. Each family sitting along benches on either side of the court. Always the same side, the same bench, and the same time. Throughout the seven weeks of the trial the two families never exchanged a word.
So the interest was ferocious on Monday morning. There’s a cafe opposite the courthouse that was always busy with journalists – mostly South African (from political programmes and documentaries as well as daily news) but international crews too from the UK, Sweden (Anni’s home country) and elsewhere. But this Monday morning its 20 tables could have been filled twice over. There was less interaction this time. Everyone was busy, filing copy for their websites, preparing for their upcoming television insert, or gossiping about what the judge would do, and why. But really the outcome seemed to be 50/50. Legally they reasoned, she had to throw the case out. The prosecution’s key witness accounts were inconsistent and error-ridden, and even the kindest judge would have been left with a seriously sceptical view of their evidence. And yet, with such a long wait for this trial, and so much public feeling in South Africa, for it to end it early without letting Shrien Dewani take the stand almost seemed impossible. Leaving Anni Dewani’s family with unfinished business, and denying them the chance to hear Shrien Dewani tell his own story, in his own words. Leaving a patient South African public with only 50 per cent of the trial they’d been waiting so long to see. And leaving Shrien Dewani to exit court without ever giving his own version of events, something he will now never be obliged to do.
There was a second of stunned silence, before the cameras started clicking. For perhaps 40 seconds, they didn’t stop, the media pack moving like a homogenous lump, a human cell surrounding a moving nucleus, Shrien Dewani at its centre
Great efforts have been made, over the past eight months, to protect Shrien Dewani from intrusion. I know of a photographer who waited outside the Valkenberg Psychiatric Hospital for an entire weekend so he could get some extremely long-lens shots of him inside the barbed-wire perimeter. In all that time, they were the only ones ever taken. So after he was found not guilty, and cleared of all five charges he faced, I wasn’t surprised when he was whisked away from court without anyone seeing him go.
But when would he leave the country, and where would he go? Free from custody, and officially free from the accusations that had blighted him for the last four years. And now free to do … what? Go back to Bristol? This morning one thing seemed certain: however Shrien Dewani decided to leave South Africa, the country that served as a backdrop to so many dark moments of his life, it wouldn’t be done publicly.
Nevertheless, I joined those same cameras that had watched for him outside court, now waiting outside Cape Town Airport. It felt like a vain hope, huddled together outside the international departures terminal. No way would he fly through a public airport. Surely the family would charter a jet? Or drive off to another city and slip away without any fuss. This, most agreed, would be a long and fruitless wait.
And then a car pulled up. And a man who was much taller than I’d realised, with a head of thick, mostly-grey hair, got out of the back seat, surrounded by four security guards. There was a second of stunned silence, before the cameras started clicking. For perhaps 40 seconds, they didn’t stop, the media pack moving like a homogenous lump, a human cell surrounding a moving nucleus, Shrien Dewani at its centre. He moved with his head held high, not avoiding the waiting world, but not responding to the questions fired in his direction. How does it feel to be free? Are you angry that this case ever came to court? No response. No emotion. Then through an airport barrier where none of us could follow. We watched from the window as his plane took off. And that was it.