Hypotheticals by Geoffrey Robertson (1985 – 1990): A TV Review

In the early 1980s, Geoffrey Robertson was approached by a CBS broadcaster to create the first of his ‘Hypotheticals’ for American television. [1] The premise of the show was simple. In each episode, Robertson, an established QC, would pose hypotheticals to a panel of top-profile guests, guiding them through the scenarios with interogative questioning.

The show quickly jumped to the BBC and NZ TV, before making its way to Australia’s ABC. [2] At first, the show was billed as educational:

 The English editions were classed as ‘educational’ – copies were sent to universities – but they were not screened in prime time and they were performed before small, selected audiences who were not encouraged to laugh.[3]

Partly, the show’s success was an accident of history. The 1980s were a time when people began to look to television “for reality” and expect “reality from the screen”.[4] In other words, television became a source of information, as well as, entertainment. Robertson adapted to this new reality of TV as “infotainment,” a blend between the two. Other ‘infotainment’ shows at the time included shows like Sesame Street.[5] Shows that had been popular in the 1960s and 70s, such as soap operas and quiz shows, were quickly disappearing, to be replaced by “talk shows discussing subjects that were formerly taboo, like sexuality”.[6] Australians, much like Americans at the time, were getting inculcated into a “television style of learning,” where learning became fun and visual.[7]

The public were hungry for serious discussions about the day’s leading news, politics and social issues. Geoffrey Robertson, as a lawyer, was in a unique position to fulfill this hunger. As Justice Callaghan puts it in Klein v. Law Society of Upper Canada: “lawyers, are, by virtue of their education, training and experience, particularly well equipped to provide information and stimulate reason, discussion and debate on important current legal issues”.[8] Lawyers are the only trained professionals with knowledge of the law and therefore have the best capacity to discuss its faults and virtues.

However, discussing legal issues with a “lay audience” comes with challenges, as Robertson would soon realize.[9] It is difficult to create a television show about legal topics [like the constitution and multiculturalism] that are at once “deathly serious” and “in most contexts deathly boring”.[10]

A lawyer cannot simply resort to jargon and legalese, as Robertson would in court, to get his arguments across. Instead, he must struggle with “how truth, law and justice are constructed in the popular imagination”.[11] It is this ‘imaginative’ element that Robertson aimed at with his creation of Hypotheticals – where imaginative, hypothetical scenarios were at the core of each episode.

Part of the program’s success can be attributed to the way in which storytelling always captures the public’s imagination. The show reached prime time audiences on Australian television, on the ABC from 1985.[12] It was immediately successful, rating in the top 10 throughout its run from 1985 – 1990.[13]

 

 

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[1] Geoffrey Robertson, Rather His Own Man: In Court with Tyrants, Tarts and Troublemakers (Biteback Publishing, 2018) [Kindle Edition] 3652 – 3666.

[2] Geoffrey Robertson, Rather His Own Man: In Court with Tyrants, Tarts and Troublemakers (Biteback Publishing, 2018) [Kindle Edition] 3652 – 3666.

[3] Geoffrey Robertson, Rather His Own Man: In Court with Tyrants, Tarts and Troublemakers (Biteback Publishing, 2018) [Kindle Edition] 3666 – 3673.

[4] Richard K. Sherwin, ‘Picturing Justice: Images of Law & Lawyers in the Visual Media’ (1995) 30 University of San Francisco Law Review, 892.

[5] Neil Postman, ‘Commentary: Learning in the Age of Television,’ (1985) Teacher Magazine 2.

[6] Mitchell Stephens, ‘History of Television,’ Media History < http://j387mediahistory.weebly.com/uploads/6/4/2/2/6422481/television-history3.pdf&gt;.

[7] Neil Postman, ‘Commentary: Learning in the Age of Television,’ (1985) Teacher Magazine 2.

[8] Justice Callaghan, Klein v. Law Society of Upper Canada (1985)

[9] Richard K. Sherwin, ‘Picturing Justice: Images of Law & Lawyers in the Visual Media’ (1995) 30 University of San Francisco Law Review, 892.

[10] Geoffrey Robertson, Rather His Own Man: In Court with Tyrants, Tarts and Troublemakers (Biteback Publishing, 2018) [Kindle Edition] 3681.

[11] Richard K. Sherwin, ‘Picturing Justice: Images of Law & Lawyers in the Visual Media’ (1995) 30 University of San Francisco Law Review, 892.

[12] Geoffrey Robertson, Rather His Own Man: In Court with Tyrants, Tarts and Troublemakers (Biteback Publishing, 2018) [Kindle Edition] 3673 – 3681, 3827, 3842.

[13] Geoffrey Robertson, Rather His Own Man: In Court with Tyrants, Tarts and Troublemakers (Biteback Publishing, 2018) [Kindle Edition] 3702.

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