Jackson trial sparks reporter rage

Outside the courtoom ITV's Adrian Britton is fighting for position with the rest of them

If you drive three hours out of Los Angeles on the 101 freeway north towards San Francisco, you will find a town built to be by-passed. The undistinguished settlement of Santa Maria might have been more appropriately named Blandville, California. With justifiable shyness, it is tucked away on the edge of chardonnay-making country and, until recently, heralded its importance as a main producer of broccoli. Now a town you have probably never heard of is about to stand in judgement of a man you most certainly have. Can there be a more unlikely venue for what Judge Rodney S Melville, presiding over this case, has called "the trial of the ages"?

If you drive three hours out of Los Angeles on the 101 freeway north towards San Francisco, you will find a town built to be by-passed. The undistinguished settlement of Santa Maria might have been more appropriately named Blandville, California. With justifiable shyness, it is tucked away on the edge of chardonnay-making country and, until recently, heralded its importance as a main producer of broccoli. Now a town you have probably never heard of is about to stand in judgement of a man you most certainly have. Can there be a more unlikely venue for what Judge Rodney S Melville, presiding over this case, has called "the trial of the ages"?

The most glitzy thing about Santa Maria is its name, but news organisations around the world are to make it as famous as the defendant being tried in the town's Superior Court. More than 1,000 journalists have been accredited to cover the trial of Michael Joseph Jackson and the process of jury selection saw the huge media circus trundle into town.

"Jackson-ville Under Construction" was the headline in the Santa Maria Times, which reported that the local authorities had rented out around £20,000 worth of land space to media outlets. Towers and platforms have been built by the US television networks to get a steady unobstructed shot of Wacko Jacko arriving and leaving the court building. Melting under the wattage of studio lights, plastic-faced news anchors, elevated in their towers over MJ's adoring fans, analysed every moment of the proceedings. And the trial hasn't even started yet.

This was the first stage of whittling down 450 prospective jurors to a panel of 12 with eight reserves. But who needs dramatic courtroom exchanges to fill airtime when "trial psychologists" and former attorneys can second- guess the defence and prosecution's dream jury?

There is certainly an advantage having a booming voice when covering an event of this media magnitude. Behind barriers running the length of the car park in front of the court, "live position" cameras are squeezed into allocated spaces. Small rectangular areas, no larger than the floor space of a cubicle loo, are marked out on the tarmac with tape. "Do Not Cross Your Line" warns a notice tied to the railings. Should you stray a few inches from your camera spot you may well find yourself addressing an entirely different nation. Cramped in spaces too small for most TV egos, we stare down the lens, our voices struggling not to be drowned out by a news network neighbour from hell. Shortly after Jackson's arrival, I had to contend with not just Larry (or was it Brad) booming to his US viewers, but also my studio director screaming in my earpiece - "Speak louder, speak louder". I raised the decibels, so did my American competitor and for several minutes our suffering viewers were subjected to reporter rage. We weren't the first journalists to raise our voices. They were heard on Media Accreditation Day. For four hours, photographers, reporters and producers queued to collect the passes which will hang around our necks for the next few months allowing us access into the court compound. Just one court official was on duty to deal with applications, each taking 20 minutes to process. The jet-lagged queue shivered in the evening chill. The fleeces had been left at home because California was supposed to be hot, wasn't it?

Even with pass in hand, or rather around neck, accessing the court room itself is severely restricted. Only seven reporters have been allocated seats. They are journalists with later deadlines who can obey Judge Melville's rule that no one can leave or enter the room while court is sitting. What use is that to Larry, (no, I think it was Brad) and me who have regular appointments to shout at our viewers? The second option is a media overflow room where a courtroom camera relays the proceedings on to a screen. Not the same as being in court. However, the selected few who will be able to say 'I was there' when Jackson was acquitted or convicted have a duty to those left out in the sun. At the end of play each day, they are obliged to stand before the cameras to describe in turn what Michael was doing, looking at or reacting to during the day's hearing. Journalists interviewing journalists to glean crumbs of information to feed the trial psychologists for further analysis. Madness - and you can't even blame the heat.

Away from the compound, where there are enough satellite dishes to find life on Mars, the trial is proving to be a bigger money spinner than growing broccoli. "Media room for rent" read the signs in shop, café and house windows. Three years ago, when attorney Michael Clayton bought offices directly in front of the court building, he had no idea a megastar was coming to town.

When Tom Sneddon, chief prosecutor, ensured that Michael Jackson would be tried in the court closest to his Neverland ranch, Mr Clayton was rather pleased with his newly acquired real estate. Now, for £1,200 a day, you can set up your camera on his flat roof space to film the Jackson cavalcade. The roof has been fenced to satisfy the local authorities that it is a safe working environment. He has installed phone lines up there. Or you may wish to interview Attorney Clayton for "expert legal analysis" at a cost of 50 quid. Don't worry about distracting him from his routine legal work - he has hired another attorney to cover him while he's on media duties. Last week, when Judge Melville warned the jury that their services could be needed for up to six months, hands rubbed in Santa Maria and controllers of news budgets groaned.

If you thought the OJ Simpson murder trial was big, ask yourself this question: did you really know his name before his arrest? Unless you are a nomad or part of a tribe yet to be discovered, you have probably heard of Michael Jackson. This year, you'll certainly get to know of a town called Santa Maria.

The author is an ITV News correspondent

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