Why is this great libel trial not on my television?

`The Al Fayed trial is the legal equivalent of the Iran-Iraq war; I feel as if I want both sides to lose'

John O'Farrell@mrjohnofarrell
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:02

OVER THE past few weeks, hundreds of thousands of pounds have been spent in the High Court in yet another attempt to solve the impossible riddle of Nineties Tory politics.

"Question: Are you a liar? Answer: No!" Neil Hamilton says that if it hadn't been for Mr Fayed he would be a significant politician and would now be on the Tory front bench, which strikes me as something of a contradiction in terms.

Given the political views held by Neil Hamilton, and the employment practices of Mohamed Al Fayed, this trial is the legal equivalent of the Iraq/ Iran war; I feel as though I want both sides to lose. Nevertheless, it is undeniably a case that has everything - great characters, glamour and drama.

So surely the greatest injustice has been done to us, the British public. Why is this libel trial not on our tellies?

It is now more than a decade since the eyes had it and television was brought into Parliament. The traditionalists had argued that this would change everything, but they've been proved wrong and it's reassuring that the level of debate in the Commons is just as appalling as it always was. The same would be true of televising courtrooms. The OJ Simpson murder trial showed that you can get just as big a miscarriage of justice with TV cameras as we in Britain have always managed to have without them.

The principle was established centuries ago, but now the public gallery should be expanded to include our living-rooms. Millions of people would then have the opportunity to see for themselves the youthful impartiality of British judges and the broad cross-section of the British class system represented by the legal profession. I just can't imagine why they don't want to let the cameras in. Maybe the objectors are worried that television would open the door to advertising. That when the prosecuting counsel described the unspeakable abomination that the burglar left in the middle of the carpet, the judge would interrupt and sing, "Well do the shake and vac, and put the freshness back". Or perhaps they think that witnesses would seek to make a quick buck by a crafty piece of product placement.

But I certainly can't imagine any of the witnesses in Neil Hamilton libel trial taking a couple of thousands of pounds to promote something they didn't believe in.

There is, of course, the problem that judges have quite high enough an opinion of themselves as it is, without becoming TV celebrities. That showbiz status would have them saying to their agents: "Do you think they can tell it's a wig?" They would develop their own gimmicks and catch- phrases. "Don't forget your toothbrush," has a different ring to it when you are sending someone straight off to prison for 20 years. Of course, 20 years might not be long enough. The studio audience might not like the bloke, and shout, "Higher! Higher!"

The best moments could then appear on a new panel game, "A Question of Court". I can already picture a TV executive thinking that he has had a stroke of genius in suggesting Clive Anderson as host. Clive would then show the clip of Jeffrey Archer on the stand swearing that he was telling the truth, and then ask the panel, "What happened next?"

Of course, in reality the same restrictions would apply to courtroom archives as currently apply to Parliamentary footage. Those of us in the light entertainment industry have always found it frustrating that we are not allowed to use any footage from Parliament on comedy programmes. Nor are we allowed to put our words into MPs' mouths. That's Alastair Campbell's job, obviously. But even if one solitary camera had been placed in the courtroom, imagine what we could have enjoyed. When a man such as Jonathan Aitken is sent to prison, you want to see the expression on his face. We could look back at the original footage of the Archer trial and see him as he lied under oath - if indeed he did. And we really could enjoy the drama of Court No 13 this week.

But there is another argument that is more powerful than any question of justice or democracy. The main reason that we must have TV cameras at the Old Bailey is so that we don't have to look at any more of those crayon drawings. Defendants always look like dead Russian leaders who have had too much make-up put on for the lying-in-state. Judges have the distorted bone structure normally seen only in those pictures they sell in Paris of rosy-cheeked children weeing into the river Seine.

If contempt of court is a criminal offence, why don't they ever prosecute the bloke in the corner with the pastel crayons and the artist's sketch pad? Why can't these people just stick to sketching dishonestly flattering portraits of American tourists in Leicester Square?

If for this reason only, we should force the law courts to join the 20th century in the three weeks they still have left. Of course, the trouble is that Sky TV would get Hamilton vs Fayed, while the poor old BBC would be left with contested parking tickets at Swindon magistrates' court. The BBC will have to take Sky to court over the deal. Rupert Murdoch vs Greg Dyke at the High Court. They could have a whole channel devoted to that one.

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