BBC’s ‘Showtrial’ – Do Fair Trials Exist In The Age Of Social Media?

Talia Krais

In the lead up to Ghislaine Maxwell’s long-awaited sex-trafficking trial, the BBC grace our screens with the whodunnit courtroom drama ‘Showtrial’. This occurs under the scrutinising spotlight of public opinion paralleling the salacious Maxwell trial that has gripped the world through multimedia platforms. Both serve to highlight how the influence of public opinion can shape the course of justice as a result of the jury’s predetermined character construction of the defendant.

Showtrial presents the arrest and subsequent trial of Talitha Campbell; a wealthy and supercilious Bristol student who is the prime suspect in the murder of fellow university student Hannah Ellis; a girl from a working-class background. The dynamic of class conflict does Talitha no favours with the police or the press who reduce her to a spoiled brat. This virtually villainises her in the eyes of society providing the impression that she is indeed capable of murder.

In this modern world of mass media can the jury remain impartial prior to the trial, or will they too succumb to prejudice?

This display of privilege as problematic within a court setting is intensified by Talitha’s father who is a real estate tycoon. As Adam Sweeting suggests ‘the very notion of introducing a billionaire property developer is like chucking lumps of raw meat into the jaws of the social justice mob’.  Similarly, millionaire newspaper publisher Robert Maxwell also known as ‘the crook of the century’ is the late father of Ghislaine Maxwell. The association of both individuals with wealth and privilege and its link to scandal highlights the public’s construction of Ghislaine’s character as ‘a spoilt daddy’s girl born with a silver spoon in her mouth’ even before her trial begins. As a result, social class which often provides greater prestige and freedom works as an antithesis; it is in fact weaponised through the media against both Ghislaine and Talitha.

DI Cassidy the lead police detective in Showtrial reinforces this by taking an immediate abhorrence to Talitha due to her biased perception of privilege. Determined to place her behind bars Cassidy withholds evidence crucial to helping exonerate Talitha undermining the objectivity of the court case as a result of personal prejudice.

As the title ‘Showtrial’ suggests, the programme is less about the investigation and execution of justice but more about the defendant appearing on show to the public. The sensationalised perception in the press of Talitha as ‘Lady Tease’ due to her escort work and her affair with the University professor constructs an image to the jury that is provocative and can be further weaponised against her. Yet her revelation in court that as a teenager she suffered frequent sexual abuse by men as well as her mother at parties thrown at her house changes this provocative image. Aided by her defence lawyer Cleo Roberts, the jury feel more sympathy for Talitha rather than hostility from the degraded labelling presented in the media prior to the trial. In fact, her job as an escort only transpires as a means to finance her time at Bristol University, as she rejects her parents’ money as a way of actively removing herself from the toxic family environment. Although her upbringing is privileged she is having to fend for herself, yet faces prejudice from the media on both ends.

Similarly, Ghislaine’s brother Ian Maxwell in his interview on the BBC expresses ‘I fear the media interest in my sister’s case will jeopardise her shot at a fair trial’ highlighted by her representation as a24 carat brat’. Yet sources have suggested that her childhood like Talitha’s was not as golden and protected as the press portrays. There is speculation that her family environment was emotionally and possibly physically abusive as a result of her father’s bullying. Whilst John Sweeney, in his ‘Hunting Ghislaine’ podcast, presents her as a ‘handmaiden of child abuse’, he also provides an account from Betty Maxwell’s memoir who was the late mother of Ghislaine. This stated, ‘Maxwell staged vicious attacks on me and the children…taking sadistic pleasure in crushing and humiliating the family’. Much of the press and, consequently, public opinion has failed to consider that Ghislaine conceivably acted in such a loveless transactional way and caused so much damage as a result of her abusive upbringing. This poses the question should there be any pity from the jury for Ghislaine as the trial begins; notwithstanding the fact that she has been implicated in some atrocious crimes, or will they have already formed their opinion on her as a result of the explicit media violations that have shattered her character?

Both these show trials evidently express how much we are influenced by our own prejudices. In this modern world of mass media can the jury remain impartial prior to the trial, or will they too succumb to prejudice?

Talia Krais

Featured Image courtesy of orangesparrow via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes made to this image.

In article trailer courtesy of BBC via YouTube. No changes were made to this video.

In article image courtesy of bbciplayer via Instagram. No changes made to this images.

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