TELEVISION / May justice be done, and be seen to be done

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The Independent Culture
MY KNEES jerked reflexively when I first saw the listing for Monday's The O J Simpson Hearing in Radio Times. Not on, surely, using BBC 2, the Corporation's notionally more high-minded channel for an exercise in ambulance- chasing. Time for general tutting then - sober words about turning human tragedy into entertainment for couch potatoes, a prim explanation of the distinction between cable-channels, like Court TV, and a public service network. The only problem was that I wanted to watch it, so much so that I found myself sitting down last week in eager anticipation, glass of wine in hand, having picked up the wrong copy of the Radio Times.

The instinct, my defence counsel will argue, was not entirely corrupt. After all, the Simpson case has provoked the United States to an extraordinary paroxysm of self-inspection. Like other televised trials before it (Willie Smith, the Clarence Thomas hearings, the Menendez brothers), it has provided the occasion for some belated public debate, in this case of issues like domestic violence and the pressures on black American celebrities. You would have to be comatose not to be intrigued. Further arguments emerged from the programme itself.

Detractors of televised trials complain, among other things, that they present justice as a game show - a case that was considerably assisted on this occasion by the presence of 'the Mystery Envelope' - sealed evidence deposited by the defence which the Judge waved around from time to time. What on earth could be inside? Tickets for two to a Caribbean resort or a 30-year stretch in Leavenworth? Would O J open it now or go through to the final round?

And, in truth, the narrative compulsion of a trial like this can't easily be separated from a good thriller - the drip- feed of revelation, the sense of adversarial combat, the way you seem to glimpse a solution out of the corner of your eye only to find it gone when you stare directly.

But the more you watch the more you are steered away from accepting probability as fact, the more fictional pleasures disappear. The prosecution seemed to have Simpson on the hook with the revelation that 99.57 per cent of the population were ruled out by the blood stains left by the killer at the scene - though not Simpson himself. The defence then pointed out that this meant between 40,000 and 80,000 people in the LA area could also have done it, which left you reflecting soberly on the nature of reasonable doubt.

There are less intellectual satisfactions, of course - the single cameraman made sure that he filmed Simpson as the injuries of the victims were described, rather than the expert witness. What you were offered, implicitly, was an opportunity to exercise your judgement of human nature. Was this the face of a killer confronted with his deeds or an innocent man hearing the horrors of his ex-wife's death? But then a jury would probably have looked in that direction too, and the final defence of such televised hearings is that they diminish the gap between jury and outside observers. Conventional reporting can't do this - the Nine O'Clock News, for example, couldn't hope to do justice to the detailed argument of a murder trial, though you rarely hear calls for it to cease coverage of important trials on those grounds.

This is partly because there is a large element of snobbery in the resistance to trial television - a belief that what the general public is avidly interested in must in some respect be base. Having watched The O J Simpson Hearing, I take a different view - that this is a rare example of utterly compelling television which is actually good for you.