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‘The Murder Trial’ and Cameras In Court: is it ok if it’s boring?

 

Written by Beverley Addison (4th Year LLB)

When I first saw the advertisement for the recent showing of ‘The Murder Trial’ on Channel 4 I was excited at the idea of the media finally reflecting an accurate criminal trial to the masses. Many of those somewhat interested in the legal world are bombarded with the mocked up trials in shows like Legally Blonde and Judge Judy, but this would hopefully be an innovative and realistic opportunity for people to see what it is really like from the inside. However just as the programme started, it became all too apparent that the future of this sort of accessible justice depended solely on how well Channel 4 did this one.

Having previously worked on a real murder trial in the High Court myself, I thought it would be interesting to look at how the somewhat un-dramatic and difficult administration involved in these cases would be taken by the general public. It is impossible to pretend that media coverage has nothing to do with criminal cases in this country (indeed, it was the media coverage that led to this retrial in the first place) and I had high hopes for this documentary opening up the debate on the development of court-reporting in the UK. 

This was the first time that a real criminal trial would be broadcast on television, with the case being that of Nat Fraser, accused of organising the murder of his wife Arlene Fraser in 1998. He had already been convicted once, but in 2011 the Supreme Court ruled that his conviction had been unsound and ordered this retrial to a new jury. The trial lasted a lengthy 6 weeks and the show edited down to 2 hours, making Channel 4 have to resort to the typical oratory and style seen in classic ‘who-dun-it’ TV dramas to hold on to viewers. During the show, my flatmate turned to me and said “I’d be much more comfortable with this show if it was on the BBC and not advertised so dramatically”. I completely agree with her point; even before the show began it was advertised for its drama rather than its accuracy. 

Perhaps Channel 4 were attempting to recreate the popularity of their fly-on-the-wall documentary series such as ‘One Born Every Minute’ or ‘999: What’s Your Emergency?’. Unlike others, I was actually hoping that they would draw on these programmes, to showcase to the public how the legal system works, what really goes on in such high profile cases and, yes, perhaps some of the more monotonous aspects to them. It was a chance to educate, encourage debate and shed light on the realities of our justice system, but it was turned into more of a CSI episode with it's edited clips of creepy forests, tension-building soundtrack and timely interviews with the victim’s family. 

I think that this could have been an excellent opportunity for the documentary to open up discussions on the legal system itself, and to give credit to Nick Holt, many solitary questions about the system were hinted at, such as the use of previous conviction evidence (actually the only part of the film where you truly felt part of the jury; when a history of domestic violence towards his wife was revealed only after the guilty verdict was handed down) and the trial by jury as a entire concept (prompted by the jury minder retorting the ever controversial line, "they’re only human ... they can’t shut off their emotions because someone told them to”). However, the editing aimed to provoke an at-home murder mystery game more than it did a policy debate. 

It seems fairly odd to me that the only open part of our ‘open’ justice system is those with time to spare to sit in the public gallery of one, never mind the fact that queues are often out the door in large cases such as this. For me, the ultimate concept here is transparency. These courts are public places paid from the public purse; the public certainly have a right to know what goes on in them. What I do have a problem with would be the sort of films we have witnessed here in ‘The Murder Trial’, where it is sensationalised for viewers or profit is made from selling production rights to biased media avenues. "This has not been a play or a film," begins the Advocate Depute in his summary speech. Perhaps not in real life, but in this edited version I would beg to differ.  

So did this provide a compelling case for cameras to be in court? I’d say not in this format. The truth may well be that the administration of justice through the court system is dare we say ‘boring’ compared to the overly-dramatic TV productions, but does that make it bad to show in its realistic form? I’d say that an informed reality is better than indifference.  

It looks like, for now, if you really want to learn about how the court works, you’ll just have to go and sit in one. 

 

If you would like to watch ‘The Murder Trial’ you can catch it on 4OD here.

 

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Interesting argument - but I would argue that the of 'open' justice exists to ensure the system is fair. Even though its impossible for people working normal hours (and is not a lawyer) to watch a case, the fact that other people do, and that everyone potentially COULD, sit in on a trial ensures balance and a 'public oversight'.

There's also the risk that trials on TV would become a real-life soap opera (if live or recorded and played after a trial's conclusion) because that's how, i'd imagine, most people would see it. Plus with twitter and such, crowd judgements and the possible threats against juries for the "wrong" verdict must be considered.



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