The strangest moment I ever faced while reporting a murder trial was some years ago in Braintree.
The victim had been killed outside a nightclub and the DJ was giving evidence about the last time he saw the accused: dancing enthusiastically to ‘Oops Upside your Head’ (this really does constitute fun in Braintree). The judge interrupted and wanted to know what this dance was. With the prosecutor foundering, the defence counsel sprung to his feet, addressed the bench and explained it in more detail than we really needed.
‘Sounds like a jolly good laugh,’ said the judge, and the courtroom momentarily forgot the gravity of the trial and laughed like they were audience members for a sitcom being filmed.
I’m sure the incident would make great TV, but little else from my court reporting years would. In fact the vast majority of court time, even for the most intriguing or horrific of crimes, would be pretty dull to a casual observer.
Presumably this is why Channel 4 will dedicate only two hours to a documentary tonight called the Murder Trial, about the case of a man accused of murdering his wife in 1998. It will document the six-week case from start to finish and feature several of the figures involved.
In effect, it’s a murder trial edited down to its ‘best bits’. Like some highlights package of an outgoing reality TV contestant, with talking heads in between.
Channel 4 says it wants to screen the programme to enhance ‘open justice’ and to justify the taxpayers’ money spent on court proceedings. Self-serving drivel. This is about tapping into a rubber-necking nature that has proved so popular with shows such as One Born Every Minute.
It is about taking our thirst for whodunnits and marrying that with the jeopardy – the thrill, even – of knowing this is real life, with real lives at stake. After all, where’s the fun in watching courtroom dramas if the guy in the dock is merely acting?
It’s taking the serious business of court and turning it into a glorified play-at-home murder mystery game, where viewers can debate over Twitter whether they think he did it based on a smirk they picked up on camera. Maybe Ray Winstone will pop up during the adverts to encourage us to have a bet on the outcome.
True, the participants gave their permission to have this recorded, which is as baffling to me as parents who consent to cameras in their maternity wards. But what real benefit will they gain from taking part in this experience? Will the victim’s family feel more satisfaction? Will the accused feel that justice has been better served? My suspicion is both parties may come to regret agreeing to take part in this circus.
We can all see where this is going. Broadcasting this court was allowed because the trial was in Scotland, where the rules are more relaxed, but England and Wales are edging their way there too. Cameras will go into the Court of Appeal from September, and if enough television executives can persuade enough politicians this is in the public interest then there’s scope for more.
But letting more cameras in brings with it a host of problems. Advocates playing up to the cameras, attention-seekers interrupting proceedings, victims feeling their case has turned into a circus.
The court is not there for our entertainment, it’s there to deliver justice. Exposing more of the public to the inner workings of a courtroom will undermine, not enhance that ultimate aim. If you really want to know how a court operates, go and sit in one.
John Hyde is a Gazette reporter
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