Editor-At-Large: Spare me the virtual Maxine

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The Independent Online

Just after 10pm the other evening I surfed through the main news bulletins on four television channels. On each one a reporter was talking about sex and duvets. I turned the set off, and felt much better. Earlier in the day I had to stop reading page 21 of the Daily Mail because the gruesome amount of detail provided in the report of the opening day of the trial of the German "cannibal" trial

was putting me off my breakfast. I had already binned The Daily Telegraph for the same reason. On the train home the previous day I had to stop reading the Evening Standard's feature on the same trial.

Broadcasters and newspaper editors now seem to feel it is acceptable to push the boundaries of taste into new and uncharted areas. Should the evidence given in court by Maxine Carr and Ian Huntley have been dressed up in quite the fashion it was every night last week? At the start of the Soham trial, the judge, Mr Justice Moses, warned journalists about how they should cover court proceedings, saying that it was of paramount importance that the jury were able to try the case "fairly and impartially". Reporters were under an obligation to report "accurately and without passion". "Highly charged inflammatory reporting" was "a breach of the media's responsibility to all involved".

Like the James Bulger case a decade ago, the trial of Carr and Huntley has gripped the nation. But, months ago, when the BBC set aside its evening programme to relay the memorial service for the two murdered little girls live on Radio 4, I felt a certain unease. Now the coverage of the trial in the press has run to page after page of intimate detail, including what one of the victims had embroidered on her knickers. This invasion of privacy is almost pornographic. It surely must cause extreme distress to the girls' parents. The case is being followed avidly in Europe, too. But it is on British television that the judge's concerns seem to be most openly realised. Since the Hutton Inquiry, television has been looking for a way to convey the atmosphere of judicial proceedings when cameras are banned.

Sky News has issued a press release claiming that its coverage of the Soham trial "will go down as a watershed in the way television covers courts in Britain". It is the first time a rolling news channel has covered a trial in this way, although it did the same with the Hutton Inquiry. Sky employs a stenographer to prepare running transcripts of the trial which are available on their website; subscribers can access them on TV through an interactive button on their handsets. Sky has three reporters on location at the Old Bailey as well as its crime correspondent, Martin Brunt. At 9.30 each evening last week there was a reconstruction in which all the main protagonists, the defendants and the barristers, were played by actors reading from transcripts with key quotes thrown up on the screen. The interior of the courtroom was reconstructed with computer graphics; the main characters were generated by computer to look as lifelike as possible, using three-dimensional sculptured models as their starting point.

It is all as sophisticated and expensive a production as, say, an episode of The Simpsons. News coverage has crossed over into the realm of entertainment. It cannot be justified in terms of reporting the facts. Sky describes its coverage as "like having a 12-camera outside broadcast unit in a computer". In other words, the fact that cameras are not allowed to film trials - for all the right reasons - means broadcasters now find other ways to grab an audience. Simon Bucks, managing editor of Sky News, says: "We will have to test our ingenuity and inventiveness to the limits if we are to satisfy the demands of an increasingly sophisticated and demanding audience."

Hang on a minute. Did we ask for this blanket coverage, this line-by-line retelling of the story? Did we need to have a computer-generated Maxine in our living room to understand what she said? I think not. Nor do I need to know that a German cut off a man's penis and then cooked and ate it while his victim was still conscious. This is not about taboos, but about the spurious use of the "supply and demand" concept to fill newspapers with stuff that belongs in top-shelf magazines and on the internet. And for future trials involving the death of children, how can we ensure that everyone concerned is treated fairly and impartially? Some hard thinking needs to be done, otherwise the drive for ratings will prevail over the interests of justice.

Trolley dolly

I only met David Hemmings once, when I was a student. The director Antonioni came to my college searching for extras to appear in a film he was shooting about Swinging London, called Blow Up. I appeared in a night club scene wearing my own clothes, and got £35 a day for dancing with a groovy black guy. Needless to say, we all thought we were doing Mr Antonioni a tremendous favour, giving his film bags of street cred. David Hemmings starred as a photographer; the rumour on the set was that he had no money and was sleeping in the Rolls-Royce his character drove around in. All I know is, he jumped out of the way when the tea lady wheeled her trolley round the corner of the studio every morning at 9.45 and 30 starving students belted towards her, grabbing everything edible in five seconds.

Well read, better fed

In the last couple of weeks two giants in the world of food writing have died. Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz single-handedly put Mexican cooking on the map with her first cookery book in 1967. She also wrote the bible of Latin American cuisine, the first serious book about Caribbean food, and three books of poetry. Alan Davidson was a diplomat, part of the UK delegation to Nato, British consul in Tunis and ambassador to Laos. He changed my life with his Mediterranean Seafood and his Oxford Companion to Food. These were people who had rich lives; they were well read, rounded people. It was a pleasure to refer to their work time and time again. Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz lived in London in the latter part of her life and was ignored. She had simply gone out of fashion. Yet the way these two wrote about what and how we eat will last far, far longer than anything Jamie Oliver ever slings together.