The Murder Trial review – Channel 4

The Murder TrialThe justice system in the UK has always seemed to me to be very antiquated and lacking in transparency. Unlike in other countries, jury research – examining how juries reach decisions, how well they understand the process etc. – is, I believe I am right in saying, heavily restricted here. For instance, It’s illegal to speak to a juror about a trial, either during or after. I broadly welcome then The Murder Trial, Channel 4’s legal experiment to show the trial of Scottish businessman Nat Frasier, though there are obvious pitfalls and problems with allowing such a TV event.

Cinematically, the film was interesting and gripping. The chronological approach taken by the prosecutor fitted into the TV structure really well, allowing the narrative of the crime to unravel naturally. And despite the ‘action’ being filmed on small, remote cameras, there were still some interesting shots, like the focus shifting from a witness in the foreground to the defendant in the background, or the capturing of a staring contest between a police officer giving evidence and the accused.

I’ve always felt that documentary is one of the best art forms. Documentaries can do almost everything fiction and other mediums can do; drama and excitement obviously, but also metaphor and symbolism – I remember seeing a Louis Theroux film that ended, on the final day of filming, with a fantastic little argument between a Palestinian and an Israeli settler over a table, which served as a metaphor for the whole conflict. If you scripted that scene it would ring untrue. Docs are also outstanding at capturing humans and their emotions and vulnerabilities and fears and everything else besides.

With The Murder Trial, we got a lot of the things available from fictional TV shows, but with the addition that it’s all true, and that certainly adds an extra note of tension and, as horrible as it sounds considering the film is about a murder and a person’s liberty is at stake, excitement. Scenes in the programme could provoke strong reactions for the same reasons. ‘You have a sister,’ the prosecutor at one point asked carelessly (or deliberately you might think if you’re cynical minded). ‘Had a sister,’ the witness replied.

At times, the film got a little lost, especially when it broke from chronologically telling the story, and I could have done without the ominous music – even if it was subtle and avoided being overwrought – and dramatic ploys like cutting to an ad-break before the verdict. The real issues people are going to take with the programme are not cinematic though, and are to do with the film existing at all.

The Murder TrialThe argument against filming in courts is that it will undermine justice. These shows could become more common and before we know it the UK will be like the United States, with cameras in every other courtroom and OJ Simpson-esque trials. I don’t think we need to worry about that given how slow the pace of reform of the justice system is in the UK, but I do have other concerns. One of the witnesses in this case, Hector Dick, came across terribly, and there are tweets all over twitter implicating him in the murder.

His character was balanced in the film thanks to interviews conducted outside the court, but that is purely a choice of the filmmakers. What if the next film decides to forgo such things? It’s not defamatory to simply air someone’s words but an unethical filmmaker could easily, in front of an audience of millions, completely destroy a witness’s character simply by airing a hostile cross-examination without too much context. Then there’s the editing, which, as we’ve seen with other reality shows, can alter the reality whatever way the editor wants (fantastically illustrated here by Charlie Brooker). Channel 4’s publicity manager said that the editing in the film ‘accurately represents the context’ but editing can be a tricky thing – it’s very easy to twist things with tiny little edits.

All that said, I think the benefits of such a film outweigh the negatives. Transparency is important in justice, and so is ensuring people properly understand the system. There was a case recently were a trial collapsed after the jury asked questions like ‘Can a juror come to a verdict based on a reason that was not presented in court and has no facts or evidence to support it?’ Films like this can help prevent that in the future. It can break the mystique around the justice system. There were some great scenes in the film showing the prosecutor and the defence counsel talking and joking with each other. It’s in the interests of justice for people to see all this and understand that this is how things work.

Nat Frasier was found guilty at the end of The Murder Trial. We have a tendency to assume that guilty people are guilty and innocent people are innocent and everything in a trial is concrete and 100% locked-down. In reality, in many if not most cases, a verdict is just a disputable decision; the opinion of the jury. There are no correct answers, just the jury’s opinion based on the evidence. The accused doesn’t break down in the witness box and confess shouting ‘you can’t handle the truth!’ It’s important that we realise this and that we understand the complexities and flaws of our justice system, and films like this, properly handled, can help us do that.

Random notes:

  • The defence counsel is on twitter. According to him, ‘the omens aren’t looking good at the moment’ for the possibility of more cameras in court.
  • The interviews were really good and added a lot to the film.
  • I really feel for Arlene and Nat’s daughter.
  • At times, the doc was like a real-life version of last year’s excellent BBC drama Murder, especially the straight-to-camera interviews with the court reporter.
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