Leading article: Trial by soundbite: so why not go all the way and let the cameras in?

PITY THE poor jurors who, understandably, took the best part of two days to decide who deserved the greater humiliation: the corrupt and mendacious former Conservative MP Neil Hamilton, or the corrupt and mendacious owner of Harrods, Mohamed al Fayed.

Many people will have been relieved by the news that Mr Hamilton yesterday lost his libel suit against Mr Fayed. It would be logical if the sighs of relief were heard most loudly at Conservative Central Office, where strenuous attempts have been made to airbrush Mr Hamilton out of history. (Hamilton a prominent former Tory MP? Surely not.) Mr Hamilton's resurrection would have been a nightmare too far. "We need it like a hole in the head," as one senior Tory admitted in advance of the jury's verdict.

Not all of us can afford to feel so happy at the way that the case concluded. Every silver lining has its cloud, and the knowledge of Mr Hamilton's punctured pomposity will be mixed in many quarters with the realisation that we may be regaled, from now until kingdom come, with Mr Fayed's lunatic theories about the Duke of Edinburgh and the security services in an alleged conspiracy to murder Dodi and Diana, Princess of Wales. "Christmas has come early," Mr Fayed said. Never has there been a less deserving recipient of Santa's goodwill.

The sad truth is that a victory for either side was doomed from the start to be a victory for neither. Both plaintiff and defendant look even more foolish than they did before the case began, if such a thing is possible. The judge wearily suggested in his summing-up to the jury that Mr Fayed had a "warped appreciation" of the difference between truth and fantasy. Hardly the "total vindication" that the Harrods owner was so quick to claim yesterday. Mr Hamilton must also repay pounds 1m in legal costs - though one need not feel too sorry for him and his ferociously loyal wife, Christine; a group of wealthy backers look set to pick up the tab. The lawyers are the only ones with any real reason to rejoice.

Much of the shenanigans in the Hamilton-Fayed case seemed implausible. Still, it was thoroughly entertaining in the grisly way that these things can be. As in the television series Neighbours from Hell, both sides were convinced of their own righteousness, even while reminding us how intolerable their own behaviour was. The spectacle was gruesomely addictive.

In that sense, one could perhaps argue that, for libel cases at least, the no-cameras rule in British courts should be lifted. In criminal cases the cameras are rightly kept out in order to avoid the dangers of witnesses playing to the gallery and, in so doing, reducing the chances of justice being done. In libel cases such as this one, however, both sides are ferociously intent on delivering a cluster of soundbites for that night's television news.

In such circumstances, one might as well broadcast the real-live soundbites, instead of hearing them second-hand from a court reporter. One could even ask for the permission of both the plaintiff and defendant: in a grand-standing case such as this one, both sides would no doubt agree.

It would not be real life; but at least it would be entertaining.

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