Court TV: X-Factor or Eldorado?

Nick McAleenan

I remember as a young man watching TV coverage of the OJ Simpson trial.  It was dramatic stuff: a blonde brutally murdered; a celebrity US footballer (and star of The Naked Gun) in the dock; cops behaving very badly; racial tensions; and, of course, a blood soaked glove that didn’t fit.

Whilst I found the regular TV updates on the case fascinating, the trial was subsequently cited as an example of why TV cameras should never be allowed into a UK courtroom.  The cameras were blamed for lawyers’ “grandstanding”, witnesses playing up and public ridicule of the Judge.  The cameras had created a circus.

Such coverage would not have been possible in the UK because the filming and broadcasting of court proceedings is currently banned under two Acts of Parliament.  However, times are changing. 

Earlier this month the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, announced that the ban on filming in courts will soon be overturned to “improve public understanding of the justice system”.  The rationale is that broadcasts will allow justice to be seen to be done, and this will improve public confidence in the system. 

Why have a TV ban in the first place? The main concern is that cameras could intimidate witnesses and victims.  This could interfere with the legal process and expose vulnerable people to harm.  Ken Clarke’s proposal is to allow filming in the Court of Appeal only, and then roll the changes out to the Crown Court.  Judges will be filmed giving their sentence or judgment.  Jurors, witnesses, and victims will not be filmed at all.   

TV coverage of court proceedings is not, of course, an entirely new development.  The Supreme Court (which replaced the House of Lords court) is exempt from the ban and has allowed broadcasts of its goings on for the last 2 years.  Sky News, a vocal advocate for reform, claims that its own live streaming of Supreme Court proceedings are viewed by an average of 90,000 people per day.  Equally, as the Leveson Inquiry into press standards has demonstrated, the broadcast ban does not apply to public inquiries.  Leveson has allowed extensive live coverage and access to the Twitterati. 

I liked Perry Mason, should I add Court TV to my Sky package?  Whilst the reasons for reform are admirable, the reality is that the media are most interested in cases involving celebrities and high profile crimes.  As Roger Smith, the director of Justice, recently commented, the media want drama; they want trials, and the bloodier the crime the better.  So, if you happen to be interested in complex tax litigation, then watching the “new” coverage could be a bit like buying a Sky Sports subscription to follow Wigan Athletic in the Premiership: your team won’t be on very often.

I am in favour of the new reforms.  Open justice is a key part of a healthy democracy and sensible relaxation of the court broadcasting rules should be encouraged.  However, it is essential that sufficient safeguards are put in place to protect the administration of justice and the people involved in court proceedings.

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