Peter Pringle's America: It's the Electric Chair Show

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AMERICAN chat show hosts, who interview only the sexually weird, chronically abused, clearly criminal, infamous or fat, have sunk to a new low. Phil Donahue, dean of the tabloid talkathons, is proposing to show a murderer's execution on TV.

Donahue, of course, has come up with some lofty reasons why this event would be good for America. A public execution, he argues, would serve to remind that the wages of sin can still be death in 37 of the 50 states of the union. Because the jails are trying to resist this event, Donahue's legal teams are also saying that banning the cameras is a form of censorship - not on the prisoner, but on those who want to watch.

The silver-haired TV host already has a prisoner's approval for coast-to-coast screening of his death. David Lawson has agreed to allow Donahue to videotape his execution scheduled for 15 June. Lawson received the death penalty after being convicted for murder during a burglary in 1980. He can choose the gas chamber or death by lethal injection.

Donahue's request is in court. The North Carolina prison authorities, where Dawson is on death row, rejected the idea, but Donahue filed a petition pleading the First Amendment of the US Constitution: 'In no event should the Government's decision to allow or disallow speech and expression be based upon the content or subject of the matter expressed.' So far, the North Carolina attorney-general is adamant: 'The general public does not have a right of access even to attend executions, much less film or photograph them.'

In states that have the death penalty, executions are usually required to have a dozen witnesses. They are mostly outsiders, sometimes family or friends and a set number of journalists, who can report the event but are not allowed to photograph it.

If the TV filming goes ahead, a great many people will probably watch, although I will not be one of them. These people will either be so revolted that there will be an anti-capital punishment upsurge or, more likely I fear, they will find some kind of catharsis for the appalling crime about them; maybe they will even see it as good entertainment and it will catch on. After all, public executions used to be like a day off and I do not see a great moral evolution in the human species.

Donahue argues that murderers and rapists will be deterred by the scene. 'I would be pleased to have an execution on the show,' he says. 'Let's see future bad guys watch these people fry, right here on TV.' He was also in favour of showing last week's caning of the American Michael Fay in a Singapore jail. 'It's an issue of the people,' he claimed.

That is the credo of the chat shows, of course; their raison d'etre. But according to the polls, there is no need to convince Americans of the benefits of capital punishment, and there is no evidence that capital punishment deters: murders keep going up. Most Americans are unwilling even to debate the issue, although the United States and Turkey are the only Nato countries to retain the death penalty. Consistently, the polls show 75 per cent in favour of state-sanctioned revenge killings for first-degree murders. After a mass killing, or when a serial murderer is at large, the percentage in favour of capital punishment goes even higher. The tiny lobby against rarely gets a hearing.

There was a brief period, starting in 1972, when the then liberal Supreme Court banned capital punishment citing America's 'evolving standards of decency' and the cruel and unusual aspects of executions. But by 1976 that idea was squashed and executions started again.

When people such as Donahue want to revive public executions, one has to wonder whatever happened to those 'evolving standards of decency'. Apart from other considerations, anyone who looks closely at the interminable delays caused by the appeal process in the way capital punishment is administered in this country would have to conclude it is a form of torture.

Then there is the well-argued position that television already contains far too much violence, from wars to murders to car crashes. The cameras pan in on the blood and the mutilated bodies to boost their ratings. Local television news has at least one body bag per evening. How much more ghoulish is it to watch people die prearranged deaths?

Yet Donahue might win his case. The civil libertarians, in their blind faith attachment to freedom of expression, will be on his side.

Despite the evidence linking violent TV programmes and crime, they will always seek to discourage Congress from interfering with First Amendment rights. 'TV networks are free to make their own decisions' is their standard response.

There is blood in fairytales, gore in mythology, murder in Shakespeare; why not the electric chair on prime-time television?

Yet the public execution is clearly a regressive step. Ideas of suitable punishment were changed by the Enlightenment.

Before then, the 'spectacle of violence' was deliberately constructed to terrorise the citizenry into conforming with laws and codes of behaviour designed to build a more manageable society. The stocks, the pillory and the guillotine were as much for display and deterrent as for carrying out punishment.

Donahue wants to make his film because his and other in- your-face chat shows feed on the salacious, the prurient and the terrifying: a chamber of horrors on TV. This show would not curb crime so much as raise ratings.