Should justice be televised?

6 December 2010 by

The head of Sky News has argued in a new Guardian article that justice must be televised as allowing TV cameras in court would help restore public faith in criminal proceedings.

Sky news has been campaigning for TV cameras to be allowed in court for the past year. John Ryley argues that the upcoming prosecutions of 5 men accused of abusing the parliamentary expenses system should be televised as the judge in the case has said the matter is “of intense public interest”. Televising proceedings would help restore the loss of confidence in parliament and politics and ensure that judges who are seen are “out of touch” and “liberal” need not escape the spotlight.

Moreover, allowing cameras into court would allow victims of crime to see justice being done, and the public’s suspicions that “something is rotten behind those closed doors” could be diminished.

Ryley accepts that cameras would not be appropriate in every part of every case, and could reasonably be excluded in the family courts and cases involving children or where jurors or witnesses may need to have their identity protected.

There are already a large number of comments on the article which cycle through the usual arguments for and against allowing cameras into court, a debate which is as old as television technology. The standard arguments are set out in this article by Dr Paul Mason, coordinator of the Centre for Media & Justice in Southampton.

The usual arguments in support are:

  1. Television opens the court to public scrutiny
  2. Televised hearings can educate the public about what happens in the justice system
  3. Cameras have no negative impact on trials, according to U.S. research
  4. The public have a right to see justice done, and the only proper way this can be accomplished is to allow them access to hearings through their TV sets

And the arguments against:

  1. Televised justice leads to soundbites and sensationalism, and edited highlights of a case lose the subtlety of legal argument
  2. Television fosters disrespect for the court
  3. Cameras pervert the trial process as juries become star struck and lawyers grandstand
  4. Victims and witnesses are intimidated an can be less safe as a result.

The American example

Most people considering the issue in the UK will think back to sensationalised criminal trials which have been broadcast from the United States, most notably those of OJ Simpson and Michael Jackson. In the United States, cameras have been allowed courts in all fifty states since 2005, to varying degrees. In 1991 Court TV was launched and reached 70 million cable subscribers by 2003. It has since become truTV, which specialises in broadcasting grisly murder trials.

In the 1990s federal (national) courts began experimenting with the use of cameras, but the coverage has remained fairly limited.  It has also been restricted to criminal proceedings. However, last month the Judicial Conference of the United States approved a pilot project to bring cameras into some civil proceedings.

Dr Mason refers to a number of studies undertaken in the US which have shown that the effects of televising hearings is not as grave as feared, and in fact the presence of television cameras has little effect on the behaviour of witnesses, lawyers and judges. In the age of reality TV, it is perhaps less surprising that this would be the case: people seem to forget almost instantly that they are being filmed.

Supreme TV

Interestingly, the position in the UK is almost a mirror image of that in the United States. Whereas we ban cameras from almost all courts, the UK Supreme Court has allowed its hearings to be filmed and broadcast since it opened just over a year ago. In the United States, the Supreme Court is one of the last courts not to allow cameras into proceedings. As US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said recently, many Supreme Court cases are boring, but of those which are not he fears broadcasters taking snippets from arguments and air them out of context. “Familiarity breeds contempt,” he said. “The fact that the court is somewhat removed is a good thing.”

Despite great fanfare, UK broadcasters – including Sky News – have been almost entirely disinterested in UK Supreme Court hearings.  I argued in an article last week that our own Supreme Court needs to do more to publicise its hearings, which are being digitally filmed at great expense but so far have inspired disinterest from broadcasters. The half-hearted approach of the court to distributing the feeds has meant that the it has suffered the costs of the new system without the public receiving the benefits.

The LawTube age?

The debate over cameras in court is as old as the technology itself, but in the age of YouTube, 24-hour news and the iPlayer, it should be reopened. John Ryley is well placed to understand the power of TV coverage and expert editing, but will also know the dangers of sensationalising stories and issues.

The public and media understanding of the law is often poor, and this is compounded by an almost blanket ban on TV coverage. Allowing the broadcast of hearings could give the public access to the legal system in new and attractive ways.

Human rights law envisages that a balance must be struck between public access to justice and potential breaches, for example, of privacy or national security. Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights provides that everyone is entitled to a “fair and public hearing”. Judgment are to be “pronounced publicly” but the press and public may be excluded from trials “in the interests of morals, public order or national security in a democratic society”, as well as other scenarios where “”publicity would prejudice the interests of justice”. The public can attend most hearings freely, although many do not know this, and UK courts have recently been keen to ensure that the public has as much access to court hearings as is possible.

There are good arguments for limiting television access, but these decisions should be taken from an informed perspective after testing the real effect which TV cameras would have on our judicial system. Moreover, those who fear justice will be misrepresented by a TV audience with short attention spans should have more trust in the public’s ability to discern accurate from inaccurate reporting. The internet has multiplied sources of public information, meaning the media has become more open and democratic, and this would apply to legal coverage on video too.

It is often said that justice should not just be done, but should be seen to be done. As things stand, justice is very rarely seen and as a result our justice system continues to be poorly understood. Allowing TV cameras into court could provide the oxygen needed to ensure better and more interesting public access to the legal system.

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  1. Puck de Raadt says:

    I don’t think justice should be televised. Yes, MP’s and others should be held accountable, and be seen to be held accountable. But current methods of reporting it in the UK suffice to raise the issues without going for uncontrolled and extensive character assassination…..the red tops do enough of that already, and in vile style. I would most certainly not want to see an American sensationalist style of public reporting: It demeans and harms justice and poisons public life.

  2. ObiterJ says:

    This is one of those superficially attractive ideas but that does not make it a good idea. I see the issue on two levels: criminal trial courts and judge-only hearings. (The latter would include civil proceedings, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court and Judicial Committee).

    Criminal trial courts should not, IMHO, be televised. Witnesses frequently find the whole business intimidating as it is. They do not need to have further problems put their way. Any fear felt by a witness is an obstacle to justice and it does not matter whether the fear is irrational or not.

    Judge only hearings could be televised though there would have to be some exceptions – e.g. family cases. There should be no real point in lawyers “grandstanding” before a judge.

    Having said the above, I suspect that the likely “general public” audience would be quite small and many court hearings are pretty dull affairs other than to the participants. How many of the general public bother to watch televised Parliamentary debates / committee proceedings etc? Sadly, the general public is very uninformed about many things but that is because to gain knowledge you sometimes have to make some effort and most people can’t be bothered unless they are directly involved.

  3. James Wilson says:

    The only real objections are (3) and (4), and based on the rest of the article neither really stands scrutiny. With so much ‘reality’ tv broadcasting court isn’t going to be that much of a big deal as far as the public is concerned, not like it would have been a couple of decades anymore. As for witness intimidation, since any televised proceedings would be in open court there isn’t a very rational fear that witnesses would be more often identified and harassed, though obviously they might still retain an irrational fear with the resultant problems for trials.

    That aside, since anyone in theory can walk into an open court hearing at any time, and since journalists have for more than a century reported such proceedings, there is no real objection to televising. Seems to me it wouldn’t be that expensive to install webcams and have all proceedings stored on a judicial website somewhere. Potential misuse could be policed by the threat or use of contempt of court proceedings.

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