Sophie Walker

Watching The Execution of Gary Glitter

on 09 November 2009

Channel 4's latest faux documentary intends to shock. And it succeeds, despite a weak script and lack of any meaningful insight into failures of every legal system that executes its criminals. 

At the beginning we are told that the death penalty was reinstated in a fictional Britain in 2005 after a vote in Westminster Palace where 316 voted in favour and 311 against it. Gary Glitter is been extradited from Vietnam to England for raping two young girls. Glitter, or Paul Gadd as we come to know him, is portrayed as malicious and having little remorse for his actions. The question that the program sets up for viewers is in the face of clear evidence of child rape, wouldn’t you also vote to hang him?

The program is timely. Only a few weeks ago, in the wake of the tragic Baby P case, the Metro reported that over a half of voters back the re-introduction of the death penalty. And yet the poll and this program make the same basic error. The imposition of punishment is not based solely on the people’s emotional reaction to perpetrators of criminal acts. A legal system must take into account a plethora of factors including the mental capacity and mental health of the defendant, upbringing and socio-economic background to name a few. But none of these issues are sexy enough to make it into this program. Instead you get a demonic looking, washed out pop star, Seventies hits and incoherent shouting matches between ‘ordinary people on the street.’ According to Hamish Mykura, Channel 4's head of documentaries, this ‘constitutes an intelligent and thought-provoking examination of the issue’.

The program fails to offer any insight into why the British, European and international community have created legal safeguards to prevent the death penalty being brought back in Britain. When human rights are mentioned, they are used as taunts to the ‘liberal parasites’. It is unfortunate that the program failed to recognize the critical role played by the European Union in abolishing the death penalty in many Eastern European states or the continuing support Britain gives to its nationals facing death row across the world.

Instead we are treated to a dramatic trial where Gadd smiles demonically as witnesses sob and the prosecutor rants. Gadd’s defense lawyer rises from melee. At the start of the program he is over confident and tells Gadd he may be back on the street within days. Over the next 80 minutes, he makes poor strategic decisions and gradually crumbles as he watches Gadd’s execution. These scenes were moving and highlight a critical issue within the US death penalty debate: untrained, underfunded and unmotivated defense lawyers.

The death penalty has increasingly become an area of national fascination. Since its abolition forty years ago next month, Britain has chartered a brave course as one of the leading voices in the anti-death penalty movement. We want to continue to speak out against this abhorrent practice instead of cowering under ill-perceived popular opinion, as in the fictional world created by this program.

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