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28 February 2024

The Jury: Murder Trial and the misogyny of the British public

This disquieting Channel 4 series reveals the shocking way some men still talk about women.

By Rachel Cooke

On Channel 4, a disquieting experiment in which the jury trial – still so shrouded in secrecy – is given a weird MOT in a series that’s part reality show and part social experiment. For anyone who has ever sat through a long court case, its sickly combination of fascination and monotony will be all too familiar: when it comes to verisimilitude, all it lacks is a vending machine and the smell of instant coffee; restlessness, irritation – and sometimes horror – prickle the skin throughout, like an old woollen sweater. But, in the end, it has less to say about British justice than it thinks. Its true subject is groupthink. In its airless spaces, the bullies, the cliques and the borderline hysterics act with impunity, their pincer movements dubiously oiled with therapy-speak, by the new-found conviction that “lived experience” (my most hated tautology) is their trump card.

But let’s take a breath! The Jury: Murder Trial runs over four consecutive nights, and replicates, word for word, the real murder trial of “John Reisdale”, who killed his wife, Helen, by hitting her over the head with an industrial hammer at their home in rural Essex. In the TV show, as was the case in reality, Reisdale does not dispute that he caused his wife’s death; when the police arrived to arrest him, he was quietly waiting for them. However, the defence’s case is that his crime was not murder, but manslaughter, on the grounds of loss of control following extreme provocation.

John Reisdale is a pseudonym because this project rests on the fact that, for its duration, no one must be able discover the verdict in the real case. The producers have assembled not one, but two juries. Both listen to the same judge and the same barristers and witnesses, at the end of which both must return their verdict – the twist being that neither jury knows about the existence of the other. Will they vote the same way? Or will they take different paths? Obviously, I mustn’t answer these questions. But what I can tell you is that, from the outset, the producers seem to be convinced that two different verdicts will be proof of the system’s inadequacy in a way that matching verdicts would not – something I don’t believe to be the case (both juries could still be wrong, even if they voted the same way). To bolster this suggestion, various experts appear (Nazir Afzal, a former Crown prosecutor, is one), confessing their anxiety about British justice and suggesting that other countries do it better. In Denmark, for instance, jurors are trained and paid to do the job for a year.

So much for the experiment. What about entertainment? Does it work as television? Only partially, I think. Here are 24 people, none of whom we’ve clapped eyes on before, and almost immediately they’re rowing. Picture the Big Brother house, minus the AstroTurf and hot tub (though there is a kettle), then add in that they’re arguing not about who ate the last digestive, but about whether a man killed a woman in cold blood. It’s not exactly edifying. Even when they were at their most conscientious and reasonable – it’s amazing how much they all care about winning the argument – I wanted to stick my fingers in my ears. The post-spat hugs, as unerringly regular as any prison timetable, made me worry for prospective real-life jurors everywhere.

Amid all this, one thing stands out: the shocking way some men still talk about women; the easy excuses they make for violence against them. Gary, a retired caretaker, understood Reisdale’s loss of control; he used to chuck cups of coffee at his wife, to get rid “of the energy inside”. Ricky, a builder, insisted there are two sides to every story, even those involving industrial hammers. What, he wanted to know, had Helen done to push Reisdale to his limit? Aaron, a bus driver, worried that if Reisdale was convicted of murder he wouldn’t be able to see his children, and what man should be put through that?

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Having watched this series, I’m no wiser about juries and how their processes might be improved. But I’m chastened all the same. The m-word (misogyny). It’s always there somewhere. Whatever your sex, do bear it in mind as you inch carefully through this unfathomable world.

The Jury: Murder Trial 
Channel 4

[See also: Michael Sheen’s The Way review: audacious, intellectual TV]

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This article appears in the 28 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The QE Theory of Everything

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