Doing the Deed: media portrayals of the judiciary
By David Pickup
David Pickup considers changing perceptions of the judiciary in popular culture
Recently, I saw an episode of Judge John Deed, the BBC TV series which ran from 2001 to 2007. It’s still available on DVD – and, like the format, it demonstrates in the most tangible way how much has changed within the century. I can’t think of many series or one-off dramas that feature judges. Indeed, even this one is a drama which, in its day, people seemed to either love or criticise. It is fair to say it wasn’t always procedurally accurate – and the characters – particularly the judge – do things that wouldn’t be allowed in real life. However, it was a drama meant to entertain the public – not necessarily to provide a lecture on the legal system. Martin Shaw’s character, Mr Justice Deed (or Sir John Deed), gets, let’s say, a bit too involved. We have all been aware of judges who seem sometimes to intervene too much in a case. In this portrayal, Deed presides over cases being prosecuted by his ex-wife – or defended by his on-off girlfriend (occasionally with help from his daughter). Dramatic – but not allowed. Deed is often partisan – and even has a personal relationship with his former pupil, Jo Mills QC (played by Jenny Seagrove), who regularly appears in his court. Writer GF Newman is quoted as saying that the judge, “speaks out against all the petty rules and bureaucracy that frustrates us all, but that most of us don’t speak out against”. Deed is also presented as possibly being the victim of a conspiracy to silence him from other more traditional (fictitious) High Court Justices.
Although the series is on DVD, two episodes are no longer available because they resulted in criticism. One featured a court case that was based on the possible effects of the MMR vaccination – a controversial subject at the time. A complaint was made by a viewer about that episode, claiming it portrayed biased and incorrect information about the vaccine. The other non-available episode was about the alleged effects of mobile telephones on the brain, the plot of which alleged a link between tetra phone masts and brain tumours and motor neurone disease. The Editorial Complaints Unit ruled that the episode had contravened the BBC’s “obligation of due impartiality on matters of public controversy”. It also reportedly had a fictional character with an alleged similarity to a real-life person.
Stranger than fiction?
Interestingly, in a well-known case, a real-life judge used the series to issue a warning to a jury not to let the series influence their view of trials. Judge Timothy Pontius told an Old Bailey jury, “Contrary to Judge John Deed… barristers are not there to manufacture a defence.” During an episode where the fictitious Judge Deed was called up for jury service, he decided to investigate the forensic evidence, then cross-examined witnesses from the jury box. Similarly, on a separate occasion, Leveson LJ said the justice system would be “derailed” if jurors followed Deed’s example and researched cases. Leveson LJ told the Old Bailey jurors: “Whatever they do on television, it does not represent English law. You must remember that you must not research a case yourselves. Whatever Martin Shaw might have done, it would simply derail the whole process.”
A product of its time?
By 2009, the series had been cancelled. I understand that it was very popular with judges. It made them look passionate, up to date and romantic, if not sexy. It was, in my view, good for the profession for the same reasons: showing court dealing with real and important issues. It has been described as a guilty pleasure – especially given Deed’s ‘swashbuckling’ persona. Some of the scenes of the drama were filmed at the Old Bailey, including opening shots of lawyers. My interest was that some of the shows were filmed in my local town of Aylesbury. Sadly, they did not ask local solicitors to be extras. It is often said that the legal profession – and the system more generally – is stuck in time, a system in suspended animation, with little changes over the course of a decade or two. However, legal dramas such as this, provide us with a touchstone – a snapshot of popular portrayals of the profession at any given point in time – and present us with the opportunity to look back and see what we thought then, to compare it to what we see now. Upon this reflection, in particular on the subject of the judiciary, perhaps it is a case of ‘what a difference a decade makes’.
David Pickup is senior partner of Pickup & Scott, and head of the mental health department: pickupandscott.co.uk