Recently, Lord Neuberger, president of the Supreme Court said “I think there is a strong case for saying that [British court cases] should be televised: that is merely the modern extension of enabling the public to enter the courts physically.”
The problem with the idea of televising trials is that it further publicises accusations which have, as yet, not been proven. There are uncountable numbers of people who have found themselves on trial for crimes they did not commit but despite many of them receiving not guilty verdicts, the damage is quite often already done. Mud sticks. People have lost jobs, friends, even family because of false allegations. Publicising those allegations before even finding the defendant guilty can only make matters worse.
On the other hand, I did watch some of the Oscar Pistorius trial, live from South Africa, on the BBC News Channel, and I think I can pin point the exact moment when I became convinced that he was guilty. It wasn’t when they showed the door, or when he contradicted himself three times in a row. Nor was it when the witnesses against him spoke of his obsession with guns or when they questioned whether he was or wasn’t wearing his blades at the time. No it was down to one single sentence.
I firmly believe that the words people use to explain themselves say more than just the words themselves. They have hidden, underlying meaning, which is not always obvious or apparent. In this case the prosecutor was questioning Pistorius with regard to whether the victim had screamed when he started shooting. The prosecutor said that, if Pistorius was telling the truth about what he did, the victim would surely have screamed. What Pistorius said was “No, that isn’t right. She wouldn’t have screamed.” She wouldn’t have. It isn’t proof. It isn’t really evidence at all. But I believe that statements like this show an unintentional truth. Pistorius could quite easily have said that she didn’t scream. But he said she wouldn’t have screamed. He spoke in the hypothetical. He spoke about what would have happened (if he were telling the truth about what he did), not about what did happen because he is telling the truth. He was not accessing his memories of what occurred, he was accessing his imagination to recall what he said had occurred. And that was enough to convince me that, at the very least, he was not being honest about what he did. That isn’t to say that he meant to kill her, but, for me, it cast serious doubt on what he had to say.
Now that is a judgement I could never have come to if the trial hadn’t been broadcast live. It wasn’t a line that I saw in the papers, or which was reported on during the main news programme, and I never would have heard it if I hadn’t been watching it live. But is that really a good thing? Sure, it was enough to convince me that he was guilty. But I admitted myself that is by no means proof or even evidence. So what if I am wrong? What if it was not Oscar Pistorius at all but John Smith who works as a teacher in my child’s school? What if he really was innocent and I had jumped upon a single comment he made during his televised trial? What if he were found not guilty and went back to work as normal despite the fact that I am personally convinced he must be guilty? Would I still be happy to send my kid there? Would I judge him? Would I change the way I am around him? Would his life continue to suffer despite him never having done anything wrong at all? And, if so, is it really such a good idea to have televised trials?