It is no disaster to have justice seen to be done on our television screens

'Soon we may be in front ofthe telly with a six-pack opining about the chances of a murderer getting off'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

More than 20 years ago, ITV had a popular and really quite gripping daytime programme called Crown Court. Over three days each week, a fictitious court case would be pursued. In those faraway days before video recorders, it was always touch and go whether one could stretch a cold for the full three days and find out the end of the story. The details of each case were made up, and the judge, barristers and witnesses were actors, but the jury was made up of members of the public, who were allowed to come to their own conclusion.

More than 20 years ago, ITV had a popular and really quite gripping daytime programme called Crown Court. Over three days each week, a fictitious court case would be pursued. In those faraway days before video recorders, it was always touch and go whether one could stretch a cold for the full three days and find out the end of the story. The details of each case were made up, and the judge, barristers and witnesses were actors, but the jury was made up of members of the public, who were allowed to come to their own conclusion.

I don't know why they don't revive the idea, which was an excellent one. It confirmed what everyone knows: that court cases are intrinsically interesting, and the more real they are, the more fascinating they appear.

And perhaps, soon, we will have our very own real-life Crown Court. The question of televising court cases, which has been mentioned from time to time over the years, has risen again. There is some speculation that the Government is to examine the issue, and before too long, we, too, may be sitting down to watch real cases as they progress, spending Saturday night in front of the telly with a six-pack and a bag of Doritos, opining knowledgeably about the chances of some obvious murderer getting off. Or, if you prefer, discussing questions of the law with a new level of understanding which will inevitably follow in the wake of greater public exposure to the processes of justice.

The televising of legal cases is not entirely banned in the UK. In Scotland, it is permitted in certain circumstances. Whether it has proved a great success or not is a moot point. Criminal cases may not be televised; the BBC's application to have the rule overturned in the case of the Lockerbie trial failed, although, since no jury was involved, there was no argument to be had that the verdict would be influenced by coverage. Certainly, it seems unlikely that the restricted levels of coverage permitted in Scotland have in any way resulted in unfairness, or altered the working of the legal system in any way. It must be admitted that in no circumstances could they have resulted in fairer trials; but that is not quite the point.

The opponents of televising court cases do not have the Scottish experiment in mind when they argue that it would damage the application of justice by reducing an examination of the truth to the level of a soap opera. They have in mind a number of miscarriages of justice that have occurred in America, in which television seems to be strongly implicated. In these cases, it seems as if the huge public coverage that followed in the wake of television pushed the case into irrelevant areas - what the public was interested in more generally, and not the issues of the case - and perhaps even discouraged the lawyers from raising unpalatable facts that prime-time viewers would not care to hear about.

The first of these cases was, of course, the OJ Simpson trial. Certainly, almost everything in the case was conditioned by television, from the famous car-chase onwards. And commentators reduced the entire case to a question of race, when it was fairly clear that it ought to have been possible to treat it as a murder. Television certainly played a part in this; it seems instantly equally plausible, to some in America, that a man might be framed for murder in these circumstances as that the forensic evidence and the evidence of witnesses might actually mean what they appeared to mean. After all, had they not seen the very same plot a thousand times in exactly the same place, in the corner of the drawing room?

Why, on the other hand, the jury was also prepared to believe this, is not so obviously connected to the televising of the case, and might just as possibly be a consequence of the workings of the American legal system. When an American lawyer can pick and choose jurors to get a group that seems most likely to give the desired result, then television starts to become less relevant.

In the Louise Woodward case, I think there is an argument to be had that television affected the verdict, but not in an obvious way. There was, after all, a quite serious possibility that Louise Woodward had nothing to do with the fatal injury; the boy's elder brother had a perfect opportunity to inflict an injury, and there were witnesses prepared to say that he had a violent temperament. Whether he did or not, no one can say, but there was, to say the least, some doubt about the proposition that Woodward was the only person at the time who could possibly have injured the boy. The court did not explore the possibility at all. Whether or not this was due to the unwillingness of Woodward's lawyers to go on prime-time television and suggest that a small boy might have whacked his brother on the head with a hammer, I do not know. But that other possibility, however plausible in real life, is not one any that TV movie would want to touch, and the court case followed all the lineaments of banal American narrative, to the injury of justice.

What conclusions can be drawn? In the main, I think, few. The American justice system is far more corrupt than our own, and would be corrupt without television; here, for instance, you cannot escape a charge of sexual abuse of children by being famous, or making a large payment to the parents of the child involved. Nevertheless, there are strong dangers involved, which we would be unwise to underestimate. The televising of parliament is not a parallel case since, as everyone knows, parliament decides nothing. The courts do decide things; they are not a theatre.

But on balance, this is not a bad direction to take. The pressures of accountability are now enormous, and we want, quite rightly, to see how important decisions are made, and in detail. The justice system here is robust enough to resist the pressures of public opinion; indeed, it already does so. Of course, there will be mildly distasteful consequences: lawyers will start cropping up on chat-shows, and I imagine there will be a great deal more weeping in the witness box.

But it is not a bad thing for the people of a nation to understand how its justice system works, and it would have been actively desirable if, for instance, the television-watching masses had been able to follow the Jonathan Aitken case in detail through to its conclusion.

It is, of course, a risk, but one in the end worth taking. At the very least, this is a step which we ought to consider extremely seriously.

hensherp@dircon.co.uk

Comments