Who should play the court reporter? Sharon Stone, of course

Actors use fact in Michael Jackson’s trial making proceedings more accessible, says Simon Bucks, associate editor, Sky News

I am having an email relationship with the stenographer in the
Michael Jackson trial. I haven’t met her, but I am getting a mental
picture. Her name is Michele, and she is the official “court reporter”
to Rodney Melville, presiding judge in Santa Maria, California, where
Jackson is on trial accused of child molesting.

Twice daily Michele sends out the certified transcript of the
proceedings, which we use for producing the trial reconstructions on
Sky News and Sky One. It must be a tough job turning out 200 pages or
so a day, fully corrected, within hours of the court rising.

My
image of Michele was originally a woman of a certain age, in twin-set,
faithfully recording every dreary spit and cough of the burglary and
drinkdriving cases, that are the staple fare in Santa Maria courthouse.

This
farming centre – population 80,000 – has been overrun by the thousand-
strong press corps which has invaded the town. I wondered if the
Jackson case might be a little overwhelming for a self-confessed
“smalltown girl”, as she described herself.

We had first made
contact a year ago when I started exploring the idea of re-enacting the
trial in the way Sky had done with the Hutton Inquiry.

We
exchanged polite, business-like emails as we negotiated an arrangement
for getting the transcripts. Eventually a deal was struck, the trial
started, the transcripts flowed, and our programmes got underway.

Then
she added a PS on one of her emails: “I’ve heard positive things about
your re-enactment, although I haven’t seen it. But I hear there’s no
one cast as the court reporter. May I suggest Sharon Stone?”

The
set designer, director and I went to Santa Maria, took pictures and
measurements, and matched wood veneer and carpet swatches. Edward Moss,
Michael Jackson’s doppelganger, is scrupulous about every detail. He
watches live TV coverage of Jackson’s arrival at court to ensure he has
the right wardrobe. Moss may never say much, if Jackson does not
testify, but he certainly looks the part.

The words the actors
say are the exact words that were uttered in court, hours earlier. They
read them off large teleprompter screens out of shot. It’s a challenge
– the entire programme has to be recorded in as little as three hours
for satelliting to the UK.

The most striking thing about making
these programmes is the difference between British and American
editorial rules and guidelines. The US media has declined to identify
Jackson’s accuser, Gavin Arvizo and his family. Judge Melville agreed
they could be named in court from day one of the trial – though he
asked the media not to do so. Most US media outlets adopt the view of
the New York Daily News which said they would not use the name because
the boy “has not been identified by police”.

The British media
has used it, mainly because the name was already in the public domain
in pre-trial reports and the biography of the singer by J. Randy
Taraborrelli. It means that our American partners on the project, the E!

channel,
have to bleep out every mention of the name. They also blanked out the
boy’s face in extracts from the Martin Bashir TV programme.

The
Americans are, however, happy to broadcast the most graphic evidence at
any time of the day – albeit with a “health warning”. It is something
we would never contemplate if children might be watching, so we have to
record two versions of some segments.

It is easy to forget that
we are not subject to the same rules that govern court reporting at
home. In the US there is almost nothing you can’t say about an active
trial.

On Court TV anchors and guests tell it like it is. The
stars of TV’s Jackson coverage are the fabulously named Savannah
Guthrie and Diane Dimond, who has been following the singer’s case for
years. Dimond – commentating after Gavin Arvizo told the court how
Jackson, allegedly, showed pornography to him and his brother – said:
“I was reminded as this boy was talking, that eight of the 12 jurors
are mothers with children and that story has to stick in their heads.”

They
even interviewed a rejected juror: “If you were on the jury sitting in
court today would you be offended by Jackson turning up in his pyjamas?”

And
here’s a lawyer, commentating in the Los Angeles Times: “If you start
out with witnesses who get clobbered, then that impacts on the victim
himself.

The jury must be thinking: ‘This is just what the
defence said the case is about – lying little teenagers whose parents
have groomed them to grift’.”

At the start of the trial the judge
read the rules to the jury: “You must not read or listen to any
accounts or discussions of the case reported by the newspapers or other
news media, including radio, television, the Internet, or any other
source.” Nevertheless, Sky is sticking to the British way, using the
reconstructions to present the case as it happens, and explain what is
going on.

Is it journalism? Emphatically yes.

Certified transcripts are the most reliable account of what is said in court.

Reporters
in court provide us with a description of how things happened, and the
actors do not introduce any spin. I am convinced it helps make the
trial more accessible and understandable.

It’s not drama; it’s reportage.

And what of our heroic stenographer Michele, casting herself as a superstar?

Does
Judge Melville secretly see himself as Paul Newman? Does prosecutor Tom
Sneddon fantasise about being Bruce Willis? I need to get out of here
before Tinsel-town gets to me, too.

The Michael Jackson Trial reconstructions are broadcast Tuesday-Saturday on Sky News at 9.30am and 9pm.

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