TV programmes dealing with disability are a mixed bag in terms of portrayal. But with its handling of the Pistorius case, Channel 4’s The Last Leg has proved that it has made positive strides, says Paul Carter.
Some coverage surrounding the events leading to Oscar Pistorius being charged with the premeditated murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp has been respectful and measured, some has been speculative, shoddy and in some cases, downright ghoulish.
The beauty of The Last Leg’s coverage of the Pistorius/Steenkamp story was that they realised that there simply wasn’t any humour to be found it. As a show that bases itself around making jokes about the week’s news stories, this obviously will have put the writers in a difficult situation – there’s no doubt it was the biggest story of the week by a long way, and dominated the news agenda and schedules for days afterwards. But as a show with its roots firmly in disability, it was almost inconceivable that they could ignore the story.
Ally Fogg, writing in The Independent, criticised The Last Leg for not naming Reeva Steenkamp personally, calling it a mistake. Some people criticised The Last Leg for focusing more on it being a tragedy for Oscar and for Paralympic sport, rather than acknowledging the fact that a young woman had lost her life in tragic circumstances. This criticism though seems to miss the point. The Last Leg was borne out of the Paralympics. It will always have indelible ties to the Paralympic movement, and to the names and faces that it brought into the national consciousness. It’s perfectly understandable that it would concentrate on that side of the story. Does that make it OK? That’s a matter for debate, but the audience wouldn’t have expected anything else.
For The Last Leg viewers, Oscar was, and always will be, the main focus of the story. That’s not meant to disrespect or demean the memory of Reeva Steenkamp in any way, but sometimes, in news and in broadcasting, decisions are made that sometimes have unexpected consequences.
When introducing the show’s trademark ‘Is it OK?’ segment, Adam Hills said: “Before all of this happened, he was our hero. He showed me that a guy with no legs can do anything and be a hero, and even though we didn’t really know him, it kind of felt a little bit like we did. From what’s been reported this week, one of two things may have happened; either Oscar was involved in a tragic accident, in which case we’re devastated. Or, he has committed a terrible crime, in which case he’s let us all down, and we’re devastated. Regardless of what happened, it’s desperately sad for everyone involved. It’s someone that we looked up to, it’s someone that we felt close to and because of that, if it’s ok, we won’t be making jokes about it tonight.”
And that, in a nutshell, is why The Last Leg continues to break down barriers. It’s disability made normal. And something more broadcasters should be straining every sinew to achieve.