Trial by television - Monocolumn | Monocle


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19 March 2015

It unfolded with perfect dramatic timing. A day before the conclusion of a six-part documentary series on HBO its subject – Robert Durst – was arrested for killing one of his best friends, a claim the show had been investigating.

Monday’s murder charge has been incredible publicity for the The Jinx programme and has even lead to speculation that prosecutors and the show’s makers were in cahoots; the arrest happened just hours before its denouement after all.

Durst was apparently caught in an unguarded moment in a bathroom, with his TV microphone still attached, admitting to killing “all of them”, a supposed reference to three murder cases he has been tied to in the past. These include the death of his ex-wife and a neighbour he admitted cutting into pieces and dumping in a Texan estuary. The first case never went to trial; he was cleared of the latter after hiring a $2m (€1.85m) defence team.

The whole debacle and the media feeding frenzy that has ensued raise many disturbing questions. Durst is a millionaire New York property magnate who hired well-paid lawyers. We’ve seen in the past what these “dream teams” can do and it’s probably fitting that his latest trial is due to take place in Los Angeles, mecca of celebrity scandal trials à la OJ Simpson and Michael Jackson. It also says something of the vanity in us all. Durst agreed to be interviewed for the series, walking around with a clip-on mic. The lure of TV meant he was prepared to co-operate with HBO more than any representative of the law.

Newspapers and TV channels acting as a watchdog is nothing new. But this blurring of the line between investigative reporting and entertainment is different. With poor policing and flawed investigations in the spotlight following events in Ferguson, Missouri, has a new force stepped in?

Of course, there’s a strong argument to say that media outlets are providing a valuable service and doing the job that the police and judiciary has failed to carry out. But entertainment requires following the rules of entertainment, which can sometimes skew facts. Last year’s massively successful podcast Serial, downloaded by millions of people around the globe, proved that a colloquial script about a murder trial coupled with some catchy music could resonate. And now we have The Jinx.

Reacting to the programme’s revelations, an MSNBC presenter – almost salivating – asked which personality HBO had in its sights next. If the stakes are high and the audience curious enough, rest assured that the Entertainment Police will investigate.

Ed Stocker is Monocle’s New York bureau chief.


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