That's entertainment?

June 12, 1991

By Karen Fletcher

Courtroom Television Network will be launched next month on US cable TV. The brainchild (half-brainchild?) of Yale Law School graduate and legal journalist Steven Brill, the network is designed to bring "real life courtroom drama" to the lounge rooms of cable TV subscribers, complete with voice-over commentaries, interviews with relatives of the litigants and profiles on the lawyers and judges involved in the cases.

Brill claims that CTN will bring to America "the truth, the whole truth, and some damn good lying".

Killing in Kentucky, the test broadcast for CTN, features Tracey English, a 17-year-old who "claims she was abused by her father and stands accused of murdering him". The girl is not an actor. The courtroom is not a set.

The broadcast opens with the announcement that Tracey English is about to take the stand. Two immaculately groomed commentators in CTN's New York studios discuss the case.

"Is this the make or break moment in the defence case?", asks one.

"Absolutely", says the other. "Her big problem is that she's going to have to explain that statement she made saying that she killed her father in bed. It's a tough load to carry."

"She's on the stand right now", says the first. "Let's cross to Louisville, Kentucky." The scene cuts to Tracey English in the witness box, crying. The commentator's voice-over continues, whispering. "This may be one of the most important days in young Tracey English's life. How the jury hears what she's saying right now will have a big effect on what they decide. What is to be her punishment for having shot her father?"

After English's testimony, a former prosecutor, Ed Hayes, is interviewed on her performance.

"You shoot a man in the mouth and blow his head off", says Ed knowledgeably, "there's no way he's going to be staggering around and end up on the bed."

The network hopes to launch itself by televising the prosecution of William Kennedy Smith for the alleged rape of a woman at his uncle's home in Palm Beach. Rape, murder and child sex abuse are bound to be big raters.

This is American Psycho for real. No names have been changed to protect the innocent. No grisly detail will be left unexplored. If the US legal system was a bear pit before, it has now become a fully fledged spectacle. Rome had nothing on CTN. Gladiators have been replaced by 17-year-old survivors of child sexual abuse, and the lions by sleek TV presenters with pearly white gnashing teeth.

Not that the legal system ever had much to recommend it. Survivors of rape and incest have long shunned a legal process which offers institutionalised humiliation and degradation. CTN has just ights to injustice. This should achieve a desirable purpose from the point of view of US law enforcement agencies: a reduction in the number of reported sexual assaults.

Televised courtroom "drama" feeds the hunger for Texas Chainsaw Massacres in acceptable guise. If Easton Ellis' American Psycho is art and The Silence of the Lambs is psychological cinema, then Killing in Kentucky is televised jurisprudence: you too can cross-examine the witnesses, match wits with the defence attorney and play judge and jury. Maybe they could open the phone lines to the audience for a viewers' poll, one number for "guilty" and another for "not guilty".

Campaigners against capital punishment in the US have supported televising of an execution by electrocution on Public Television. They hope the horror of the spectacle will assist in turning public opinion against institutionalised murder. In the light of the popularity of fictional, and now factual, horror, one has to wonder whether the tactic will be effective.

Having formed their opinion of the guilt or innocence of the accused, CTN's audience may then feel they have a stake in selection of their punishment. After thorough desensitisation to human suffering, it is not inconceivable that they may tune in to a state-sponsored snuff film, and feel a warm sense of participation in the justice system. If CTN and Steven Brill make a hefty profit, it's a bonus.

Rome collapsed at that point. George Bush better be taking fiddle lessons.

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