Channel Four has made television history by showing Nick Holts’ documentary ‘The Murder Trial’. This was not the ordinary, run-of-the-mill crime drama; this was real life. The ground-breaking documentary followed the retrial of Nat Fraser at the Edinburgh High Court. Fraser was accused of the murder of his wife, Arlene; however it was no ordinary murder. There was no body, only circumstantial evidence and Fraser had a cast iron alibi. The facts were the stuff of crime writers’ dreams, paving the way for some compelling viewing and intense online debates about allowing cameras in the courtroom.
Photo: Channel 4
The six-week long trial was condensed into just two hours. The viewer witnessed an edited down version of the trial, along with interviews from all parties involved. The barristers, clerks and judge all gave an insight and explanation of the court process, while friends and family gave the back story; dubbed as an X-Factor style gimmick by many. There was a moving interview with the Fraser’s daughter, who continuously defends her father’s innocence.
The witness questioning was portrayed to make the viewer the jury, with the prosecution hinting at Fraser’s guilt and the defence painting another picture, conflicting the viewer’s original thoughts. The trial led to viewer investment in the judging; an explanation echoed many times online was that a witness, Hector Dick, really killed Arlene.
There was a clear divide between guilty and not guilty opinions, with the tipping point Fraser’s refusal to testify; something the jury cannot take into consideration. The prosecution and defence closing statements provided a good summary of the events, showing the skill and persuasive nature of the barristers. The Judge then gave his instructions to the jury; who were not identified. This section was heavily edited, and one cannot help but wonder who decided what the important and interesting bits of the trial were.
Fraser was found guilty of murder. In a shocking twist, it was revealed that he had domestically abused Arlene. This prompted an online outrage, with many changing their not guilty decisions to guilty upon hearing this news; thus highlighting the importance and debate of non-disclosure.
The Murder Trial was somewhat of an impressive feat for Holt; it gave a real insight into the world of the criminal trial. However, the viewer must note that court is not that exciting or ‘glamorous’. The majority of trials can be as dull as dishwater; there is no soundtrack, back story or explanation as to what is going on. The documentary may have revealed some of the mystery behind the court system, and hopefully it will have inspired a future generation of barristers. However, one cannot help but wonder whether a truly realistic drama or more education in schools would be better inspiration.
Whilst allowing filming in a courtroom could make the administration of justice more open, it could also hinder the system. Witnesses could be put off, and a certain type of person may feel encouraged to commit crimes to appear on TV. It could glorify crime and give a ‘Jeremy Kyle effect’ to the administration of justice. Not to mention the fact that most trials are not overly interesting, and the amount of time and money spent on the programme must have been astronomical – six weeks of remote filming isn’t economical, and heavy editing is required to craft an attention-grabbing documentary.
After all who really wants a court channel like the BBC Parliament channel? The debate about courtroom filming still rages on and time will only tell if documentaries like this will become the norm; The Murder Trial is only the start.