Virtual reality of TV justice

The media and the US legal system take equal blame for the spectacle of the OJ Simpson trial

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The OJ Simpson trial was perhaps the most sensationally globalised legal process in history. Television carried the whole of the nine-month- long procedure around the world, making Judge Lance Ito, defender Johnnie Cochran, prosecutor Marcia Clark and Simpson himself as familiar as any Baywatch babe or soap stud. Wherever you travelled those faces could be seen on TV or in newspapers, always frozen in the narrow confines of that courtroom and always betraying the fallen, corrupt consciousness that this show was turning them into stars.

Simpson himself was, of course, a star already - an American football hero and movie actor. And that was the point. Here was a man whose place in the American consciousness was so well defined that his trial had to be a show trial. Here was a hero who might be a killer. The American public had a right to know the truth, for, to them, fame is a matter of legitimate public interest. Fame is valid, fame is important, fame enhances the right to know.

So the trial became, literally, a show trial. Simpson had pounds 3.6m to spend on his defence and the state of California had pounds 35m to spend on his prosecution - for that kind of money you could make a big movie. And so, of course, they did. Johnnie Cochran's closing speech could have been modelled on Spencer Tracy's performance in Inherit the Wind or Paul Newman's in The Verdict. At every point in the trial you could feel the pressure of old movies or TV shows, pushing the performers to play it for the cameras, to play it the way the jury and the television audience expected it to be.

And this, surely, is the first big lesson of the trial: courtrooms should never, under any circumstances, be televised.

The arguments for televised trials seem strong. If justice should be seen to be done, and if we already have public galleries, then there seems no logical reason to exclude cameras. On the face of it they merely have the effect of increasing the number of seats in the gallery. They are a neutral technology that simply assists the dissemination of the edifying and salutary spectacle of justice at work.

But the Simpson trial demonstrates conclusively that cameras are not neutral. By extending the audience from tens to millions, the camera introduces a new reality that is not merely quantitative. That reality is mass entertainment. The audience is not locked in a courtroom with nothing to watch but the trial. It is at home with a remote control, watching the trial as a show, as one viewing opportunity among many. It even, thanks to the too-familiar courtroom geometry, looks like other shows - Perry Mason, The Defenders, whatever. The TV manners of the US courtroom are as generically ritualised as those of the sit-com. And once televised trials are like this, then all trials have to be, because that is what juries expect.

Television transposes the court from a physical to a virtual realm. Its reality and significance are relativised. It must compete, it must play the mass game. This game requires shorthand, instant recognisability. So it forces conventions on the participants.

In Los Angeles a media-comprehensible reality was imposed upon the world to make it palatable to an audience educated not to believe the evidence of their own minds - that truth is difficult, reality ambiguous and people, even famous people, are unfathomable. Once you abandon this awareness for the cheap imperatives of a TV show, then justice, an absolute at least in theory, becomes self-evidently impossible.

You could see the corrupting need for these mendacious conventions in Cochran's approach to the defence. He wanted to convince the jury that this trial belonged to a particular cinematic genre, the genre of liberal defence attorney fighting a corrupt, racist system riddled with evil plots. Get the jury to recognise the movie type and they would have no choice - in this genre the defendant, guilty or not, is always innocent.

So everybody in the courtroom was trapped in a bizarre, cultural loop. Movies and television shows are made about trials. Directors touch them up in all the right places - enlarge characters, heighten drama. People watch the movies. That, they decide, is what justice must be like. Then they go on juries. Lawyers cannot afford to disappoint them, so they start acting like Tracy or Newman. Live television comes along with all its attendant claims to "realism". The lawyers ham it up even more. Even the not-guilty verdict was delivered with a suitably filmic, agonising pause. Amazingly we discover that "real" justice is just like the movies because, by now, it is.

The horror of all this is that somewhere at the start of this particular movie there were real bodies with real blood and, even though he's famous, Simpson was always a real man facing the possibility of a real sentence. Yet who, deluged with this TV overkill, could really keep that in mind? Television banished real human suffering by lulling us into thinking this really was a movie.

But it was not just the fault of television. It was the whole American legal system that allowed this to happen, allowed money and fame to corrupt its proceedings. There are about 25,000 murders in the United States every year. Say they all came to trial and got the full OJ treatment - TV, super- expensive lawyers, months of evidence and so on. That means each one would cost around pounds 40m - and within months the US economy would have ground to a halt.

But it doesn't happen, it can't happen, because the big lawyers don't care about those little crimes. It is only when the defendant is rich and/or famous that the lawyers spot the chance of major fees, TV appearances, books and so on. It's bad enough to know that the Simpson trial was an event created by the movies and the media, even worse to know that it was all done in collusion with lawyers. Once again the flagrant racket that is the American legal system is exposed. So much for Jefferson, so much for Lincoln, so much for the Enlightenment.

Amid all this, the best, the most poignant joke of all was the jury - kept off the TV screens to protect their anonymity and "sequestered" in hotel rooms to prevent contamination by the media coverage. There they were, the quarantined distillation of the Republic's common sense, wondering what it all meant and who, if anybody, they were supposed to be.

It couldn't work, of course. Only jurors who had never seen a television screen could be sufficiently pure to judge Simpson. Only a few saints, mystics and lunatics would have qualified. They, in a world of TV justice and US lawyers, would be the only ones who knew anything for certain.

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