25 October 2011

Did Mr Lickley pause for longer than usual at this particular point in the Tabak trial?

Reports of the prosecution's closing statement to the jury at the trial of Vincent Tabak on the BBC and Sky News websites, have reminded me of what got me interested in studying rhetoric and persuasive language in in the first place.

Both websites cited, presumably verbatim, a contrast, the second part of which is a three-part list from the speech by prosecution barrister Mr Lickley:

"Vincent Tabak is very clever, he is intelligent.
"There is another side to Vincent Tabak. He is dishonest, deceitful and he is a liar."

In response to such rhetoric in a political speech, an audience might well have responded with applause. But in studying courtroom language, there was a methodological problem, summarised in an earlier post on the subject as follows:

'We had plenty of tapes of court hearings, but the absence of any audible responses from jurors during the proceedings meant there was no way of knowing which parts of what was being said were having a positive impact on the audience that really matters.

'The reason why applause in political speeches seemed a promising place to start was because it provides instant and unambiguous evidence that listeners are (a) awake and paying close attention and (b) approve strongly enough of what’s just been said to show their approval of it (by clapping hands, cheering, etc.)' - for more on which, see HERE.

Tapes of court hearings?
Earlier this year, in a blog on Televising the Supreme Court: one small step towards a giant leap, I made the point that the original reasons for banning cameras and television from our courts had disappeared long before Paul Drew and I wrote Order in Court: the Organization of Verbal Interaction in Judicial Settings (Macmillan Press, 1978). Yet the best data we could get from courts in the UK had to come from observations and transcripts - though. ironically, we never had any trouble copying audio-tapes of American trials from colleagues in the USA.

More than 30 years later, the same constraint still applies, so that anyone anyone else foolish enough to take a technical interest in the detailed workings of courtroom language will still have to make do without access to the raw material of live recordings. Meanwhile, Sky News (perhaps from rather dubious financial motives) has been doing its best to break through the barriers (e.g. HERE, not to mention its recent coverage of the trial of Michael Jackson's doctor).

The core methodological frustration is still with us
As I was still working at the Oxford Centre for Socio-Legal Studies after writing Our Masters' Voices in 1984, people used to ask, quite rightly, if the findings had any implications for speeches made to jurors in courts - and I'd very much like to have been in a position to give them an empirically grounded answer.

As far as we could tell from the American tapes to which we had access, exactly the same rhetorical techniques were being used in prosecution and defence statements to juries. But, at the points where applause would have occurred in a political speech, counsel were tending to pause for longer than usual - as if they were allowing the jurors time to engage in 'mental applause' and approval for the point they had just made.

On the basis of trials I've observed in English courts, I'd say that much the same seems to happen here too. But, so long as researchers aren't allowed access to actual recordings, it's impossible to check this against hard evidence.

My guess would be that the prosecutor in the Tabak trial at Bristol Crown Court probably did pause for longer than usual after making the point that was quoted on the BBC and Sky News websites earlier today. But, without being able to listen to actual recordings, we shall never know...

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