Delivering a guilty verdict against juries

In BBC2’s reality-TV legal trial, The Verdict, it is the celebrity jury that is really on trial, rather than the defendants.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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BBC2’s reality-TV jury show The Verdict covers the fictional trial of an international footballer, Damien Scott, and his friend, James Greer. They’re accused, alongside an as yet unidentified man with a ‘hairy belly’, of raping a church-going 19-year-old called Anna Crane. To make matters a little more ambiguous, though, Anna’s friend, Clare Golding, has sold the story for £30,000, leading the defence to argue that the two of them are simply enacting a sting. That’s not the only complication. While the defendants and witnesses are played by actors, not only are they represented by real barristers, in a real court, presided over by a real judge, but the jury itself is made up of real, ‘well known people’ – including Michael Portillo, Jeffrey Archer and Chris Tarrant’s wife, Ingrid.

This might be a problematic conceit whatever the type of case, but by choosing a rape trial because, as the head of The Verdict’s production company puts it, ‘it’s clearly two interpretations of reality’, The Verdict quickly degenerates into farce (1). With jurors judging the performance of actors as if they’re judging real people who might be acting, it comes down to which actor is best at not appearing to act. ‘I liked them, they seemed like nice lads’, concludes former EastEnders actress Patsy Palmer of the defendants. Others are less generous. Ex-So Solid Crew member, Megaman, notices that the claimant couldn’t look at anyone when she spoke, while Stan Collymore reckons that her crying was a bit affected. Not enough Stanislavski perhaps.

With The Verdict, you’d be forgiven for thinking its production company, RDF, had simply tired of the reality TV format it helped define with Wife Swap and Faking It, and gone for the surreality TV market instead. Some of the discussion is best described as unfortunate. ‘I think it’s unlikely that that girl would have anal sex at 19’, declares Jacqueline Gold, founder of the Ann Summers sex shops. Doing his best Sergeant Major impression, Jeffrey Archer interjects: ‘You’d do it very slowly, very carefully, and very tenderly.’ Ex-Blur bassist, Alex James, who, going by his tweedy, bewildered demeanour, now clearly lives in a very big house in the country, is prompted finally to say something: ‘Actually, it’s quite a trend amongst young girls to have anal sex because there’s no chance of pregnancy.’ ‘Oh no!’, exclaims Honor Blackman, as if discovering her last remaining cat had expired.

But for The Verdict the law really is an ass. Hence, on its BBC web page the figure 5.6 is in bold, with the following explanatory text beside it: ‘The percentage of women who report a rape and then see their assailant convicted.’ (2) ‘What’s going wrong?’ it implies. In impetus, therefore, The Verdict falls in line with Home Office imperatives. While reports of rape have risen by 40 per cent in the last four years to 13,721 in 2004/5, the number of convictions has only risen from 640 to 728 in roughly the same period (3). Rather than grasp the increase in reported rape in terms of the increasingly confused definition of the term, the preferred argument seems to accept that there are just a lot more rapists out there, so why are they not being convicted? Targets are simply not being met. ‘Today’, the feminist writer Julie Bindel surmises, ‘rape might as well be legal’ (4). It doesn’t seem to cross officials’ and commentators’ minds that there is something sinister in setting targets for the number of convictions, whether of rape or any other crime. What about due process? Surely it is only authoritarian states that have targets for how many people to find guilty and to lock up?

The Verdict seeks to address the lack of rape convictions by blaming those delivering, well, the verdict. When the camera provides yet another lingering close-up of a juror’s face, it does so because the viewers are being urged to judge the jury, to scrutinise their scrutiny of the case. And this is where the notoriety of the individual jurors comes in. It serves an ad hominem purpose, allowing, say, Stan Collymore’s views to be reduced to what we presume to know of the ‘nasty bitterness of woman-beater and dogger, Stan Collymore’ (5). It is not, therefore, the defendants who are on trial – their guilt is a given – but those who are doing the trying (and failing in their duty to convict), namely the jury itself. Independent columnist Johann Hari captures this sentiment well: ‘[The show] forces you to watch as a raped woman goes undefended, even among a jury of her peers. The same thing will happen in jury rooms today and the next day and every day until we force our government to change it.’ (6)

One might ask what happened to being presumed innocent until proven guilty? One might also ask why members of the public are increasingly deemed incapable of exercising rational judgement. Indeed, if the 12 jurors are judged too beholden to irrational prejudices to be trusted, then that which the jury embodies – the judgement of the people, our ability to judge for ourselves – is surrendered to a higher authority, Johann Hari’s ‘trauma expert’ perhaps. Such a figure could intervene, if the jurors are straying from the path towards a guilty verdict, and offer corrections. Such measures seem sensible only to the extent that you do not trust your own judgment. In a rare piece of surreality TV insight, the judge, Lord Dennison, touches on the deepening confusion. ‘These glasses,’ he says, ‘constantly foggy’.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) Celebrity jury is on the case as BBC creates reality television rape trial, Guardian, 13 December 2006

(2) BBC’s The Verdict homepage

(3) Third of dropped rape cases should have been pursued says report, Guardian, 31 January 2007

(4) Why is rape so easy to get away with?, Julie Bindel, Guardian 2 February 2007

(5) The prejudices that allow rapists to go free, Independent, 12 February 2007

(6) Guilty of turning rape into entertainment, Julie Bindel, Guardian, 12 February 2007

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Topics Politics


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