Emotions on trial: When justice is seen to be done

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It's difficult to know what to pin on your chest lately. Instead of wearing a poppy for a couple of days, people now seem to wear them for about three weeks. Next to that you can pin your yellow ribbon for Louise Woodward, a pink one for breast cancer awareness and your old Aids ribbon. You can if you so desire add a caterpillar to show that you haven't forgotten what happened to Matthew Eappen. How much more room is there to show that you care? Well, it depends how big your chest is. The symbols of caring and remembering have got out of hand. Poppies and yellow ribbons? Are they really interchangeable?

Some would say that much has got out of hand concerning the whole Woodward case. The inhabitants of Elton emoting furiously in front of the cameras, regulars of The Rigger forming themselves into an amateur dramatics society, one minute sobbing, the next clutching at each other.

Obviously everyone in Elton shares the view that Louise is innocent and they will stay in that pub until the rest of the world recognises that they are right. It should be pointed out that anyone who stays in a pub as long as these people have is most likely to be not just a little tired and emotional but completely inebriated. An American cameraman told me last week of his shock at the amount of underage drinking in Elton and the way that the campaign consists of getting the beers in at 10 in the morning.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the inhabitants of Elton are not debating issues of justice and morality; they are doing what we Brits excel at, they are having a piss-up. Given the circumstances, a dead child, a convicted child-killer, a media circus, this may all be profoundly tasteless and inappropriate. But just let us remind ourselves of a couple of things here. The pub crowd in Elton are not the entire population of Britain, most of whom seem to feel that a manslaughter verdict is the right one. The "mob mentality" of Elton actually belongs to less than a hundred people. The idea of Woodward coming back to Britain as a heroine strikes most of us as abhorrent.

Pictures of hysterical women groping the local vicar, geed up by the constant presence of Sky News, should show that while we routinely accuse American culture of being cheap and tacky, we can beat them at their own game. This is unfortunate because the original impulse that sparked this campaign - that Woodward did not deserve a sentence of 15 years - slid day by day into gross hyperbole. The supposed list of people who have written to the campaigners offering Woodward au pair jobs is further evidence of a lapse of judgement. Whatever one may think of the girl, one might imagine she should at least try a new line of work.

Some commentators have seen the whole sorry spectacle as a sign that we have lost our minds, that the age of reason has been overtaken by a headlong rush into the irrational, the emotional, the hysterical "feminisation" of Britain that is inevitably bad. This new mood is as bewildering to the old guard as The X-Files. Emotions are the alien invaders that are turning our citizens into media zombies.

As I said last week, expressing feelings is not the same thing as understanding them. We are still in a transitional period, surprised at our own capacity to be open about what we feel. If there is a sense of permission for this brought about by a new government and Diana's death, it doesn't mean that all these emotions will automatically be noble and generous. Indeed some of the feelings that have surfaced during this trial - a knee-jerk anti- Americanism, an innate belief in the superiority of the British way of doing things - have served to remind us what a small-minded and petty nation we are.

Likewise some of the American reactions have been completely out of all proportion to what we understand to be the facts of the case. Jay Leno's quip that now O J Simpson will have a new golfing buddy is just plain ridiculous. Yet the anxieties that fuelled the huge public interest in the case do not appear to me particularly irrational. For once the issue of who looks after the children, of how working women manage has become media-sexy. Most debates on childcare are seen as dull and worthy. Suddenly that great unseen part of many women's lives - their compromises, their heartaches, their temporary solutions to the problem of childcare - is now seen as a matter of public interest. All of us who have left our children with paid carers say to each other that we are not shocked that this baby has died, but that more of them don't.

This making public of what is normally hidden has repercussions. Indeed much of the discussion around this case has to do with what should be made public information and what should not. Deborah Eappen's style of mothering has been on trial, and her decision to make public pictures of her dying baby was seen as the last straw.

We would also prefer not to see trials televised, or so we are told continually by the great and the good. It debases the legal system. We were, of course, told the same thing about putting cameras in the House of Commons. Old Britain was in many ways a closed society. Much decision-making went on behind closed doors. How though, can we argue for greater openness, greater accountability if we are prepared to keep so much secret? Putting TV cameras in courtrooms can mean appealing to the lowest common denominator, yet putting TV cameras in pubs full of people watching televised trials is deemed somehow acceptable. This is pure hypocrisy.

The American justice system has its flaws, as does ours, but we have seen justice to be done, in that whatever mistakes were made have been rectified far more quickly than if the case had been heard here. Allowing citizens to watch the legal system at work, to make up their minds, entails a certain amount of trust. Some people will go bonkers in village pubs, some will shrug their shoulders and wonder what all the fuss is about, some will enjoy discussing juicy judicial issues and some will ignore it all.

The alternative to trial by televisions is trial by tabloid. This is actually the medium that simplifies; television on the other hand shows the long hours taken up by the presentation of complicated information, it shows that everything is not black and white. There are costs involved in allowing the general public to have more access to and more information about the legal system - greater openness carries risks.

Yet for every sentimental view that has been expressed abut Woodward there exists, I'm sure, a more sober analysis of what really went on behind the closed doors of the Eappen household. In fact Judge Zobel's is just that and one day when they get back home from the pub, even Woodward's most ardent supporters may in private have to acknowledge that the party is over, that the TV crews have gone home and that there is no one left to watch them starring in a drama of their own making.

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