Merely players


And so the Premier of South Australia wants television cameras in courtrooms. And television stations wonder, oh so hesitantly, whether this might not be a good idea for the justice system. Of course America, famous for the quality of its justice system, and the size of its prisons, lets cameras in, and this is one area where we haven't yet followed their lead.

How could you possibly argue against the proposition? After all, there have been endless television reality shows based on the police, rescue services, hospital emergency, surf life saving, operating theatres, customs, police recruits, fire brigades, airports, and I may have missed one or two. They all work in the same way – because the activities involve humans in traumatic and emotional circumstances, there will always be tears before bedtime, either from the people concerned, or from the professionals working with them, or preferably both. And all you then need to bump up ratings is a cameramen able and willing to get his lens so close to the crying face that the tears will glisten like small diamonds – and they can practice on funerals. Plenty of funerals.

While there is a rich harvest of tears, from protagonist and family, when people are drowning, or having livers removed, or bags searched, or doors kicked in, or houses burnt down, you can never have too many. And so the rise of artificial tears (like the rise of artificial pearls – produced on demand and cheaply) which can be made in the laboratory, by formula, in quiz shows, and talent quests, and weight loss contests, and obstacle races, and in families manipulated by swapping wives or parents, and, the big daddy of them all, in shared houses where one contestant is going to be removed each day until only one, newly rich, remains.

But somehow there is still not enough. Oh, many nuggets of gold among them, but they are desperate for the gold mine that would produce Welcome Stranger nuggets week after week. And that gold mine is the law. Sadly there are now no public executions where people are torn apart by lions, or hung drawn and quartered, and some killjoys even stopped public hangings and then all hangings, but there is still plenty of potential gold in the law courts, day after day, year after year. It's not as if the television cameras haven't made some use of the mine. Cameras are thrust into the faces of criminals and victims and lawyers entering and leaving court. Cameras are banged against the windows of police vans and police cars, anything to get a glimpse of the person trying to stay private inside. Stupid questions are asked of those on trial "Did you commit these murders?" as they enter court on the first day. Stupid questions are asked of the families of convicted people on the last day of trial. Do they stay silent? Well, there will still be tears. Do they get angry at our intrusion? Great television. And victim's families, always good for a tear if asked, once again, to relive the event.

So only one small step for a cameraman to get inside the court, one giant leap for mankind though. And once inside, are they there to serve the public by filming judge's verdicts in detail, as I heard one well-meaning proponent say? Yeah, right, course we are, nudge nudge. No, inside the court they will behave just as they now do outside, searching for those precious tears, worth their weight in gold. Just one more reality television show to feed the insatiable demand the public apparently has for raw emotion, people in trouble, stress, heartbreak, fear, depression, hatred, drama.

All the world's a stage. Or it soon will be.

All David Horton's earlier writing is here.

The guilty party


The other day a man was released from jail in WA after serving part of a long sentence for a crime he was found, thanks to the magic of DNA, not to have committed. This seems to be a pattern in WA although I think it is not that the state convicts more innocent people, just that activist people and politicians keep pushing for justice. Other states, take note.

But I don't want to comment on the particular case in detail, except for one fact that jumped out at me. He had done it particularly tough in prison, victimised by guards and other prisoners, because he had refused to admit his guilt. Had refused to show remorse. Think about that for a moment. Would have had an easier time if he had confessed to doing something he hadn't done.

Conversely, just this week, a man was given a sentence less than the maximum applicable, because he had "shown remorse".

This business of "remorse" has been developed by the television media in recent years. I can't remember anything being made of it even ten years ago. And then taken up by populist politicians and now judges.

The logic (to the extent that there is a logic separate from the constant thirst by the media for tears, tears, and more tears, with as close up focus as can physically be made) seems to involve a desire to confirm that justice has been done. These days the television cameras, and the reporters clutching microphones, thrust into the faces of people entering court, assume guilt as charged. In Australia in 2009 it is assumed that whenever someone is arrested, or even merely mentioned by police, the punishment begins. Unflattering photos are published, background information supplied, old girlfriends interviewed, shock jock theories reported as fact, fictionalised tv series go into production, victims demand death penalties, judges are condemned for light sentences, all just one big party. Once upon a time judges used to worry about the leak of small amounts of information preventing a fair trial. Nowadays a fair trial is effectively impossible for anyone caught up in the media circus. And the television people, though driven by ratings, know this, and therefore need the accused to admit guilt, show remorse, in order to justify the lynch mob behaviour that has accompanied arrest, trial, and conviction. And someone who refuses to play the game, show remorse, will be vilified even more in the media.

This kind of legal system was once known to us only through books and films, the middle ages accounts of witch duckings, and stocks, and dungeons, and crowds witnessing executions, and the wild west with its tarring and feathering and gunfights and hangings from the highest tree. We thought we had reached a point where an independent legal system ensured that everyone could get a fair trial and a thoughtful sentence if guilty. We thought that it was better that nine guilty people went free than for one innocent person to be wrongly convicted. And that remorse was something for the prisoner to consider in the privacy of his own conscience.

Old fashioned, eh? On with the entertainment. No time for remorse by television journalists.

All David Horton's earlier writing is here.