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6 September 2011

In camera or on camera – should court proceedings be televised?

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Sky is keen on it. Sir Alan Sugar thinks it is ‘cheap’. David Cameron is ‘sympathetic’ to it. Ken Clarke is consulting on it. But does justice demand it? The prospect of court proceedings being broadcast on television is coming ever closer. With scrutiny and accountability being the new buzzwords, the justice system is once again in the spotlight. Media interest in sentencing has risen following the August riots. Regional news services have been in decline for some time, with local court coverage often being the first victim. Could a bit of prime time magic do wonders for public understanding of the criminal justice system? Or would the increased attention make the job of the courts even harder?

The favoured proposal is to restrict televised content to the sentencing of convicted offenders, accompanied by counsels’ opening and closing speeches. For guilty pleas, this may be feasible as the action is predominantly contained within a single hearing. It would illustrate how offenders are sentenced, but is this what audiences need or want? Would a repeated diet of sentencing hearings really be a good way to learn about the ‘real’ experience of a criminal prosecution?

On the other hand, broadcasting sentencing hearings in cases where the defendant pleaded not guilty but was nonetheless convicted will be like watching the final of The X Factor having been refused permission to watch the previous 12 weeks. Whilst you will know the outcome, you will not understand how the decision was reached, whether it was ‘fair’ and what the impact might be on the ‘loser’. It seems plausible that in only hearing the verdict and sentence based upon the facts as presented in the summing up, one might take an unfairer view of an offender than would be borne out by hearing all of the evidence. Equally, if one only watched the sentencing of those who had pleaded guilty, the overall perception may be that the punishment is unduly lenient.

There are solid reasons why juries only reach verdicts and judges only pass sentences having heard all of the evidence. To deprive audiences of the full context defeats any gain we can hope to make in making the system more transparent.

Those in favour of televising court proceedings are rightly concerned about the interests of victims and witnesses (although one might argue that it is difficult enough to persuade the nervous and vulnerable to take the stand as it is), but what about defendants? Almost always it is they who have the most to lose. In particular, what happens when a defendant’s conviction is televised, only to be overturned on appeal? Even if there is an obligation to broadcast, you cannot compel the audience to stay tuned for the epilogue.

The proposal also gives rise to practical issues. In the Age of Austerity, are all courts going to be fitted with cameras and staffed by a broadcast team, just to wait around for the jury to return so they can start broadcasting? Will a Ministry of Justice censor check every piece of footage to ensure that none of the broadcast regulations, which don’t apply to any other medium or the public gallery, are broken? It is improbable that production companies would invest so much in what, realistically, is unlikely to attract many viewers. For comparison, BBC Parliament garners around 86,000 viewers each day, whilst Sky claims its Supreme Court online video stream receives 90,000 visitors per day.

The end result may be little more than we have at the moment: relentless coverage (which is already provided up to the door of the court) of the major cases while the everyday burglary (those which apparently there is a public appetite to ‘understand’) will remain ignored.

The continued drive for courts to work harder and be smarter about showing justice being done is laudable. We should not be afraid to broach new ideas and question existing beliefs. But is television the answer? The ability to watch trials in real time already exists (and presumably anyone with time to watch trials on television also has time to get down to their local court and watch the uncut version) but past experience suggests that the public interest only extends so far. We need to remember that the criminal justice system is one-of-a-kind and not just another product which needs to be marketed. Court procedures are not always easy to understand or quickly summed up. Editing them down as if they are is unfair to the participants and does no favours to the audience trying to understand them.

Corker Binning is a law firm specialising in criminal work of all kinds.  For more information call us on 020 7353 6000 or go to www.corkerbinning.com.

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