OJ Simpson’s trial in the US in 1995 brought out the worst in everyone. Witnesses became talk show guests even before they gave their testimony, lawyers on both sides achieved notoriety, journalists, constantly looking for the next soundbite, found their home lives torn apart by the rigours of being on call 24/7, the judge was transformed from a benign, amiable figure to a tyrant and jurors felt imprisoned during the trial and were threatened after it ended. And a not-guilty verdict was seen by many as more a product of the media circus than an objective review of the evidence.
Surprisingly, this does not seem to have put us off this form of “public justice” this side of the pond. The Crown Court (Recording and Broadcasting) Order 2020 came into effect in June last year, bringing with it permission to film the judge’s sentencing remarks in a criminal trial. It’s only one step away from reproducing the OJ mayhem, especially with social media as a new, essential (and explosive) additive in the mix. Yet again we, the human race, the most intelligent beings on Earth, seem incapable of learning from our past mistakes.
Instead, we rationalise that perhaps it went wrong last time because of a specific factor, which we could easily eliminate next time around. After all, we’re all taught from the earliest age that if we don’t succeed at first, we should “try, try and try again”.
Or previous problems happened somewhere else, somewhere culturally different from us and we would be immune.
Or even that old adage that “times have changed” and we, people inhabiting 21st century Britain, are superior, more sophisticated, more alive to the pitfalls and can put appropriate safeguards in place. To those arguments (and others), I say no, no and no again! I accept that laudable motives exist for filming trials: education, transparency and accessibility, to name a few. And that it might help protect against conspiracy theories taking hold when controversial trials (like that of Tommy Robinson for contempt of court) take place. I’ve even heard it put forward that it would discourage aggressive behaviour by barristers towards witnesses and victims of crime.
But, sadly, the idealists promoting the scheme lack foresight and objectivity. They cannot see that their virtuous intentions will quickly be hijacked by others, usually those with an economic or political interest, in the process. And that in these times when we all have an opinion on everything, even things we know nothing about, and a medium through which to disseminate it, the integrity of the process itself will quickly become compromised. In short, filming our trials, livestreaming them, opening them up to public analysis and scrutiny, is like permitting untrained observers of open-heart surgery to direct the hands of the surgeon.
I was asked recently if I enjoyed Judge Rinder, the TV courtroom show in which a decision is reached, on camera, of who should bear liability in a civil (not criminal) trial. And my answer, without a moment’s hesitation, was a resounding yes. But that’s not because it provides an insight into the vagaries of our justice system or because those cases are of particular public interest or importance.
No. It’s because watching former romantically attached partners argue over who should pay for the removal of a tattoo of the other’s name, now the relationship is at an end, or the buyer of a rescue dog pursuing the seller for a refund when the dog died unexpectedly (perhaps it wasn’t that unexpected, given that the buyer had thrown the unfortunate dog’s ball into the centre of a busy road) is hugely entertaining. And it becomes more so in Judge Rinder’s accomplished hands. To provide the public with this pure theatre, a spectacle, a performance of the highest quality, heightened even more if the players are well known, beamed free of charge directly into our homes and then expect us all to remain silent and passive is totally preposterous. Or is it? Maybe I’m wrong and we should give it one last try.
Abi Silver (@abisilver16) is the author of The Rapunzel Act (Lightning Books, £8.99), a courtroom drama in which the trial of celebrity footballer Debbie Mallard for the murder of a breakfast TV presenter is livestreamed with devastating consequences