TELEVISION / Open verdict on trial by television: Thomas Sutcliffe reviews Bad Company, the story of the Carl Bridgewater case

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The Independent Culture
THE MAN who commissioned Bad Company (BBC 2), Don Shaw's two-part drama about the Carl Bridgewater trial and its aftermath, has gone on record as comparing the story to Greek tragedy. Frankly that's going it a bit, though you can see what he had in mind - a driven female protagonist persisting in the face of apparently insuperable odds, violence and bitter emotion, the indifference of the gods (represented here by the Appeal Court judges).

In fact, Bad Company is the latest example of a genre invented and perfected by television - the miscarriage of justice story. It has had a slow evolution, from straightforward documentary through tentative episodes of reconstruction to full-blown drama, and it couldn't have been achieved without the assiduous work of the country's policemen and senior judges. Not that they show any signs of affection for their creation. Lord Lane lashed out at the Rough Justice series, stung by the frequency with which the programme resulted in pardons or successful appeals. Lord Denning wasn't too happy with the development either. The gist of the complaints was that 'trial by television' was a dangerous innovation, a demagogic invasion of judicial privilege without the safeguards of the courtroom.

One long ago gave up expecting logical coherence from senior judges, but they seem to been particularly rattled by the implicit challenge to their authority. They should have realised that television programmes can never usurp the privileges of the courts (which are to dispense justice and hand down sentences), they can only usurp the duties of a good barrister (to present the best possible case for his or her client). In this Bad Company was exemplary, raising the prosecution case where it could be sure of dismissing it, adding anecdotal touches that cast its protagonists in the best light, playing on the emotions of its audience to sway us to conviction - or, in this case, its opposite.

In the fierce compression of dramatisation (the trial alone took days - this account of trial, campaign and failed appeal took three hours) Don Shaw had concentrated principally on the determination of Ann Whelan and the stubborn courage of Michael Hickey (despite repeated attacks from other prisoners he refused to take Rule 43, which would have segregated him, on the grounds that that would have been tantamount to an admission). Dramatically this was the correct decision (allowing for moments of emotional triumph), but forensically it left you a little uncertain, nursing the faint anxiety that the film was not aiming to turn you into the equivalent of a better informed juror but into a character-witness for the defence.

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