Show us the Supreme Court footage!

12 May 2011 by

The Director of Public Prosecutions has told the Society of Editors that more court hearings should be televised. The Ministry of Justice have responded by saying that they are considering changes but would want to consult the senior judiciary before making any “firm proposals”. 

Starmer is right to say that “shining a light on the workings of the court room can only serve to boost its efficiency and effectiveness”. But before spending time and money opening up more courts to cameras,  footage from the supreme court, which is already filmed at great expense, should be made more widely available.

I have suggested this before. It is a great shame that footage of this fascinating court, where important public issues are debated by our greatest advocates, is not more openly available. That footage, as well as most of the court’s business, is publicly funded. Hearings are recorded at great expense, but since the footage is only available on request to broadcasters, hardly any of it has been seen by the public.

Baroness Hale, one of the court’s 11 justices, has said that although the recordings are available to the media upon request, “they don’t often ask.” My view is that they don’t often ask because they think the public isn’t interested.

But the public isn’t interested because no broadcaster has presented the footage creatively enough to capture that interest. If the footage were made available in its raw form online, through a YouTube, Parliament TV or iPlayer type system, it would be for the public to decide how it wants to use the footage. Legal bloggers, who are mostly hobbyists, often do a better job of explaining judgments than the traditional media. Video editing software is now inexpensive: if the footage were in the public domain, an army of creative law aficionados and law educators could decide how to make it interesting.

Despite its multi-million pound refurbishment and excellent online press summaries, supreme court judgments are still poorly reported. For example, the Daily Mail recently took “woman judge” Baroness Hale to task for a ruling on domestic violence, and grossly misrepresented the case. Opening up the court footage will not prevent bad reporting, particularly in human rights cases which probably generate the worst examples, but it will enable more people to engage with cases for themselves in a format which they feel comfortable with. And it may also show the human face of judges, leaving them less open to unjustified personal attacks.

I am not the only one who thinks this is a good idea. Lord Neuberger, the head of the court of appeal and former member of the supreme court’s predecessor, said in March that while he can see why broadcasters, from a commercial perspective, are not keen to show the footage, nonetheless:

from a public interest perspective might there not be an argument now for its hearings, and some hearings of the Court of Appeal, being televised on some equivalent of the Parliament Channel, or via the BBC iPlayer. Brazil’s Federal Supreme Tribunal now has its own TV channel. The channel, TV Justiça, does not only show recordings of its sessions, but it also shows a whole host of educational programmes about the justice system.

So what is stopping the court? Apparently, it’s down to money. The court have recently added the following to their website’s frequently asked questions section:

We do not have the capacity to show our cases live on the website… It is extremely resource-intensive for us to convert our footage to domestic level DVDs or other output formats. Administering and fulfilling such requests is not possible within the Court’s current resources.

The DPP is correct that “transparency and visibility help the public understand how the criminal justice system works”. But before the Ministry of Justice begins another long and costly consultation exercise on televising other courts, it should provide the funding so the supreme court can, to paraphrase Jerry Maguire, show us the footage.

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  1. Jon Baines says:

    Amazingly, it appears that Sky are already broadcasting the Supreme Court live… Not sure when it began

  2. Tim says:

    Why assume that human rights cases generate the worst reporting? That might seem to be the case to good human rights lawyers because they can see how such reports are at variance with legal fact.

    However, I can say that reporting on welfare and welfare reform – particularly disability benefits, is equally appalling.

    Try this – see how DLA (Disability Living Allowance) is mixed up with work in newspaper reports, even though DLA is for the extra costs of disability and has little to do with work. It is the same trick as when the ECtHR is married up with the EU.

    Most newspapers used to report facts. Now they are little more than propaganda and hate pamphlets.

  3. ObiterJ says:

    I agree and it would seem to make good sense to start with the Supreme Court and televising the handing down of judgments. We saw some of that in those recent excellent documentaries.

    Of course, in these cash-strapped times things are difficult but that does not mean that no effort should be made even if it is a limited effort to be built upon later.

  4. Jon Baines says:

    I wonder if recordings could be requested under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The Supreme Court is a public authority under the Act, and, if recordings are being made then they are surely “held” information under the Act.

    Section 32 of FOIA exempts from disclosure information contained in any document created by—”(i) a court, or (ii) a member of the administrative staff of a court, *for the purposes of proceedings in a particular cause or matter*”, but is a recording specifically intended for broadcast really made “for the purposes of proceedings”? (And no such exemption would even be engaged if the hearing was an environmental justice case, because the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 would presumably apply).

    Section 12 of FOIA broadly exempts information from disclosure where compliance would cost more than £600. I think it’s highly unlikely that this would apply to a specific request for footage from one hearing.

    However, I’m not sure I would want to advocate putting an extra drain on already-stretched resources.

  5. Mater Memento Mori says:

    Court proceedings are already a thesbian production you put cameras in there and you will be swamped with over actors, which will not help Justice but hinder it.

  6. Tom Cleaver says:

    I totally agree. The other dimension to this is that, as their communications department told me last year, they already occasionally make DVD copies of hearings available to schools and other educational groups – so the resource-intensive bit is, at least for some hearings, already being done. The resources involved in doing up additional copies, even just a handful to put on file in legal deposit libraries, would be minimal.

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