Now Live! Men in Wigs!
Three men in curled wigs, black robes and white bibs discussing blank coins -- these were the first televised images to be broadcast from a English courtroom today, ending a ban in place since 1925.
I'm guessing this won't become a U.S. cult event on C-Span, like the U.K. Parliament's weekly political dog fight, "Question Time."
The wood paneling in the Court of Appeal of England and Wales is fabulous. And of course, there are those $600-plus horsehair wigs that English barristers have had to wear ever since the 17th century, during the reign of Charles II. They were adopted by choice at the time, when they were the height of fashion. You have to admire the tenacity of waiting more than 300 years for powdered wigs to come back in style.
As the BBC correspondent said a little breathlessly today, "You've been watching history in the making." The change is designed to ensure that justice is seen to be done by more English men and women than can be squeezed into a courtroom.
That said, there wasn't a whole lot of justice on display, thanks to limitations the judges have secured. No witnesses, defendants or exchanges with them can be shown. No members of the public attending the court can be filmed. Only one of five courtrooms rigged with cameras can be filmed per day, with news media organizations deciding which the day before. Footage can be used only for news reporting, not for entertainment or satire. No jury trials will be shown.
Plus, there's a 70-second delay in case someone swears or something else unexpected (exciting) happens, so the judge can order it cut.
In other words, the judges have negotiated terms that may make watching trials so excruciatingly dull that nobody will watch them. That makes sense, given how long the legal profession has been fighting exposure to this new-fangled moving picture technology. What will they do about Instagram?
The first English case to be televised at the Royal Courts of Justice concerned Kevin Fisher, whose lawyer was asking for the right to appeal the 7-year sentence Fisher received for trying to distribute about 1.5 million brass-colored blanks that he'd turned into 1 pound coins.
If there is a reason to watch, other than the wigs (are they "tie-wigs," "Bobwigs" or the now rarely-sighted "full-bottomed"?), it is the language, which makes you wonder if the footage shouldn't be in black-and-white.
The blanks "were all successfully translated into coins," the appellant's lawyer, Alexander Cameron (who also happens to be the brother of Prime Minister David Cameron), told the judge. "I submit that custodianship and distribution on its own is less serious than being the prime organizer of an entire operation."
It took many years of campaigning by the U.K.'s media, and two years of negotiating the terms, to get this far. There was a lot of concern that England's courts would become Americanized, turning into a new form of reality TV, and that witnesses would be discouraged from testifying if they knew they'd be on camera.
Perhaps the judges are also embarrassed to be seen on TV wearing those wigs. I would respectfully submit there is evidence for such a suspicion: The only English legal chamber until now where proceedings have been filmed is the recently created Supreme Court, where everyone gets to wear their own hair.
(Marc Champion is a Bloomberg View editorial board member. Follow him on Twitter.)