TV cameras will never be able to match the kinetic accuracy of artists’ sketches.
A judge in South Africa has ruled that parts of the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius can be televised. I am sure a lot of people will watch.
Members of the Gazette team have tended to be suspicious of televising trials – assuming that proposals said to be aimed at increasing the understanding of the law and the work of the courts are only meant as a stepping stone to more lucrative broadcasting of celebrities having a low point in court.
Still, watch and form your own view on what is gained and what is lost by the cameras arriving.
A particular casualty would be the end of one of the most impressive ancillary jobs the legal system has spawned – I mean, of course, the court artist. You will not see court artists set up an easel or make preparatory sketches in court – they aren’t allowed any more than cameras currently are.
Instead the court artist memorises key aspects of the scene and the proceedings, and takes pastels to some corridor to draw the pictures on a large piece of paper that, once pinned to a wall, cameras, including TV cameras, can use to illustrate their story.
Can you do that? I can’t.
My aversion to this is about more than sentimentality for the craft – though I have that in spades. Oddly, it’s about accuracy.
At a simple level, the court artist can depict angles on the court that a camera cannot – not without being intrusive to proceedings, anyway. More importantly, the court sketch is able to describe what happened by including moments from across the trial in one picture – the prompt for a reaction and the response.
If you think the camera doesn’t lie, then consider how many takes are needed in a large group picture to get a shot when no one is blinking – though my dominant memory of the weddings I’ve been to, or the family holidays I’ve been on, is not of people blinking. My children may have made a trip an incredibly happy one, but getting them both smiling in a way that captures the trip accurately can take a few tries, and even some artifice.
I was in California for much of OJ Simpson’s (televised) murder trial, and watched a fair bit of it. It had its moments, certainly. But there is no striking visual image from it that stuck in my mind.
By contrast, court artist Priscilla Coleman’s sketches of Gillian Taylforth collapsing as her libel action against The Sun is lost, and of Heather Mills McCartney coolly emptying a jug of water over her ex-husband’s lawyer Fiona Shackleton, are among my favourite images of high-profile cases.
These sketches have a kinetic accuracy that brings the operation of justice alive. And, though I have tried to see the other side of this argument, I cannot say the same for the necessarily constrained operation of TV cameras in court.
Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor