Paving the way towards broadcasting in courts

July 12, 2013

On Tuesday night, ‘The Murder Trial’ was aired on Channel 4. The two hour programme covered the trial and sentencing of Nat Fraser in the Scottish High Court, having used remotely-operated cameras to film the trial over six weeks. Viewing figures reached an impressive 1.84 million. Debates over whether to broadcast court proceedings in England and Wales have been rumbling along for a number of years, but the case for opening up justice gets stronger all the time.

A number of other recent TV programmes have sought to document our justice system, including ‘The Murder Workers’ which followed the work of Victim Support’s National Homicide Service, and ‘Out of Jail and On the Streets,’ a series following offenders both in jail and on release. The popularity of these programmes, together with the reaction to Tuesday’s documentary, show that the public are increasingly enjoying the opportunity to engage with our criminal justice system through television.

The case for opening up justice has been strengthened by the recent success of broadcasting in the Supreme Court. 25,000 viewers of the live web streaming each month has defied expectations of the popularity of broadcasted hearings. This early success must not be underestimated – but the cases reaching the Supreme Court are usually focused on a legal technicality or loophole, so it is no surprise that the viewing figures are not higher. Another positive move will be in October of this year, when it is expected that hearings from the Court of Appeal will also start being broadcast.

These first steps towards broadcasting courts are significant, but we need to go much further. The administration of justice must be brought into the mainstream. Members of the public are less likely to watch a complex and technical Supreme Court hearing – important though it is to have the opportunity – but are far more likely to live stream a criminal trial in which an offender in their community will be brought to justice.

Despite the emerging evidence that broadcasting could successfully engage the public with the workings of the justice system, there is still opposition – including from senior members of the judiciary – against the proposal to allow broadcasting of Crown Court sentencing. There are concerns from judges that they might be heckled on live television, and a number of critics claim that theatrics might take over our courtrooms. But the debate must come down to the fundamental opportunity to educate the public as to how our justice system works. Stringent safeguards must and will be put in place – the Government has already determined that only judges will appear on the screens, affording victims and witnesses adequate protection. Courts will continue to operate in the fair and just way they always have, and the administration of justice will always remain the key consideration. The only difference is the public will have the accessibility to view sentencing remarks as they are given.

And to the critics who claim broadcasting in the Crown Court is a step too far: how is it that journalists can tweet from inside the courtroom, yet opposition to accurate filming, complete with safeguards, remains rife? As we allow social media into our courtrooms, it seems absurd that we have yet to allow cameras, and still only permit sketches and paintings. The public should not have to depend on live tweets and out-of-court media coverage (which may not be 100% accurate) to have an up to date account of the sentence being delivered. We need to move quickly to address this imbalance, and in doing so, more fully open up justice to the public.

The Government should go ahead with plans to broadcast Court of Appeal hearings and should also begin to test the broadcasting of sentencing remarks in high profile Crown Court cases without delay. There is no reason for waiting any longer to begin implementing cameras into Crown Courts, and the judiciary will be more supportive of the initiative if there are successful pilot schemes.

Although the broadcasting of sentencing remarks will be an important step in Crown Courts, the opportunity to broadcast verdicts and even full trials cannot be swept under the carpet. Important concerns about the protection of victims and innocent defendants must remain paramount, but as the early success of The Murder Trial shows, the opportunity to engage the public in understanding how our judicial systems works is one that cannot be ignored.

Provided rigorous safeguards are put in place, in a few years the live broadcasting of certain criminal trials could be as customary as watching proceedings in the House of Commons. Back in 1988, a number of Parliamentarians (including the Prime Minister) opposed the introduction of cameras because of fears it would damage the reputation of Parliament, or argued it to be pointless as the public lacked sufficient understanding. Would anyone seriously suggest that we take away the cameras and microphones from the House of Commons today?

The Government has recognised that public understanding of the criminal justice system is limited, and that justice must be seen to be done. So let’s bring our courts up to date and finally allow the public to engage with the justice system in a modern, accurate and accessible way.

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