television review

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The Independent Culture
So, finally the verdict came in and with it was unleashed the predictable moral callisthenics about the corrosive effect of television - commentators happy to demonstrate that their knee reflexes were still in first-class order, that their finger-wagging muscles were toned up. My own view is that the Simpson trial has been a bargain for American polity, however distressing its lessons. It offered a prolonged civics class about the corrupted nature of big money justice, voluntarily attended by millions. This is not to say that television came off very well - its obedience to public taste was often abject. But the faults of the legal system are all its own, and while television may have made them conspicuous to viewers previously lulled by fictions of forensic purity, it did not create them. Trials were histrionic long before the invention of television and lawyers have always known that the jury is also an audience. If there are similarities between the techniques of legal defence and the techniques of television fiction they have their origin there, not in some imaginary pollution of the limpid pools of justice by lawyers with stars in their eyes.

In any case, what was wrong with the year-long carnival of the Simpson trial was not the broadcasts from the courtroom but the sideshows that grew up around the main event - those seemingly endless fiestas of speculation and soundbite authority, conviction after conviction and none of them safe. And the only thing that subdued those artificial passions was the fixed vision of the courtroom itself, complete with its longueurs and confusions and mistakes. Consider the instructive comparison between the lead-up to the verdict and the event itself: "I can tell you Greta," said Wolf or Mike or Randy, one of CNN's army of reporters, "the sense of anticipation here is palpable... this is one of the great cliffhangers of the year." Another described the scene outside the courthouse as "a little bit like being at a rock concert". They were right - the countdown had people holding their breath in offices, restaurants, and churches; they blocked the streets outside NBC's New York office, watching relays of the coverage. But when Judge Ito opened proceedings, the sense of occasion was more modest: "Alright," he said, "back on the record in the Simpson matter."

Time, which has sometimes seemed almost stationary in the last year ("they had the coroner up for nine days," yelped an indignant expert, "and he didn't even do the cutting!"), slowed even further. It was the longest trial in American history, concluded by the longest pause ever broadcast on ITN (the BBC had succumbed to the arm-twisting of the Labour Party and lead their early bulletin with Tony Blair's speech - which was either high-minded or abject of them, according to your taste). For many the verdict was the worst moment, the trial's last brutal instruction in the fallibility of human retribution. In court, the relatives of the murdered wept and the journalist Dominic Dunne, covering the event for Vanity Fair and perhaps recalling the trial of his own daughter's killer, sat open- mouthed for minutes, as though the conclusion had paralysed him. OJ concluded his performance with a silent "Thank you", mouthed towards the jurors.

A writer in this paper yesterday added up the cost of defence and prosecution and noted that "for that kind of money you could make a big movie." So you could, but if you offer me a choice between Die Hard III and the Simpson trial my deliberations wouldn't be lengthy. Instead of the synthetic urgencies of Hollywood, real issues and real consequences. The trial has delivered unpleasant truths, unveiled uncomfortable hatreds, exposed unconsidered failures in the system. You might say it was cheap at the price - but for the fact that the bill includes a daughter and a son.