Last night’s two-hour TV documentary about the Scottish trial of fruit and veg seller Nat Fraser for the murder of his wife Arlene offered a fascinating insight in the reality and banality of the courtroom.
Despite the horrific and extraordinary nature of the offence, the programme, even with its sometimes dramatic editing, demonstrated the ordinariness of the people involved, as well as the banality of the proceedings.
There was none of the grandstanding that some may fear from televising the courts – either from the advocates, the judge, the witnesses or the defendant. In this case the defendant elected not to give evidence at all, though he sat through the case assiduously taking notes with a fountain pen.
Despite the nature of the crime, as sensational trials go – this would not rank at the top – there was no body, no smoking gun (indeed no gun), no forensic evidence and the accused had an alibi for the day his wife disappeared.
It was naturally difficult to watch some of Arlene’s family giving evidence, but there were no histrionics from the witnesses as might happen in a TV drama.
I don’t seek to judge the performance of the advocates – they were no Martha Costello or Cavangh QC, just work-a-day advocates doing their job, who appeared unaffected by the fact that they were being filmed.
The camera zoomed in on the prosecutor’s shuffling feet and twiddling fingers during his closing speech and the viewer was shown the two advocates chatting amicably in a break.
Watching the evidence unfold was gripping, but not in any dramatic way – simply because on a human level you wanted to know what they had to say and the court to get to the truth.
Witnesses included a police officer convinced of the defendant’s guilt and the lawyer to whom Arlene went to get divorce advice, but the most intriguing was a former friend of the defendant’s, farmer Hector Dick.
Dick gave evidence to the effect that Fraser told him that he’d killed his wife and disposed of her body, but through the interviews and commentary that interspersed the documentary, it was suggested that Dick himself either murdered Arlene or helped Fraser dispose of her body in his meat renderer.
Taking nothing away from the enormity or the gravity of the trial, it is perhaps in recognition of the fact courtroom footage by itself might not have made compelling television, that the programme-makers interspersed the programme with a bizarre collection of interview snippets and footage of home videos.
Interviews with Arlene’s daughter were moving, as were those with Arlene’s parents and her sister. But a bolder move would have been to show just the unadulterated trial footage – the extras detracted from the authentic trial experience, as did the dreadful background music, intended I suppose to highten the sense of suspense.
Glimpses of the mundane court process were hinted at with shots of photocopying, papers being carried to court and even a cleaner polishing banisters. But in two hours, it would not be possible to show all the delays, and people would simply switch off.
There were interesting insights into the differences between the Scottish and English systems. The judge, looking like one of the knights of the round table in a tabard covered in thick red crosses, was led into court by a lady carrying a gold mace topped with a crown, which was hung on the wall. There were no opening speeches and it was the judge who swore in the witnesses.
The verdict itself was naturally the denouement, it came without sensation. You could make something of the revelation of the defendant’s history of domestic violence, announced after the verdict, but it was not sensationalised in any way – it just showed what happens in many trials.
For me, one of the most surprising things was the swift and perfunctory sentencing, before the guard was asked to take the defendant away.
#themurdertrial was trending on twitter for much of the show and the twitterati seemed fascinated. They, and indeed most viewers are not stupid – they realise that in two hours they are only getting a glimpse into the trial, in the same way that reading papers or listening to the news can only give a glimpse.
But the documentary took the court to the people, which I think was a good thing. I suspect that most who tuned in, did so for the novelty value. The majority would not tune in if all trials were televised, just as most do not tune in daily to watch proceedings in parliament.
It is not realistic to expect the majority of people to turn up to an actual court to watch proceedings, and I suggest that would not be desirable for the victims and witnesses or those on trial, for whom the experience must be stressful enough without a bunch of spectators having a gawp.
The media is supposed to be the eyes and ears of the people, and having the camera in court enables this to be done and the public to get a glimpse of the trial process in an unobtrusive a way as possible.