When the UK Supreme Court decided to have television cameras permanently installed it marked the beginning of shift in thinking towards TV cameras by the court. Sky News has began a campaign for cameras to be allowed to cover court proceedings in England and Wales and up here in Scotland this has sparked some in the legal profession to consider the question up here. Steve Raeburn, Editor of “The Firm” (a professional magazine for Lawyers in Scotland) wrote an article on his online blog on the magazine’s website on the subject. It was this article that got me thinking about the subject and lead to this blog post. Should TV cameras be allowed to cover Court Proceedings?
In Scotland there have been a small number of occasions where cameras were allowed into court to record important decisions. The decision on the appeals of Luke Mitchell and Nat Fraser are two examples, but the High Court laid down some strict guidelines such as that the only people who could be in view of the camera were the three judges and the macer. This, of course, wasn’t much of an issue given that here one judge was reading the decision of the court and giving a brief explanation of why the court had reached this decision. However, had this been a trial court (where the High Court would probably not have allowed cameras anyway) then these restrictions might have posed more of a problem.
There are some concerns around TV cameras being routinely allowed into courts. Justice is supposed to be open, but there are times where sensitive issues are being dealt with and TV cameras in the court room may make these harder to conduct. Also, there is a fear that the legal profession (including judges) may be tempted to “act up” to the cameras.
However, there are many good reasons for allowing cameras into court. It would give many more people a greater understanding about how things work in Court. I am forever correcting my lay colleagues when they inaccurately complain about things they hear in a news report lasting only a few minutes on a case. My explanation often takes much longer than the few minutes given by the TV news to cover a case. It would give people a greater understanding, particularly in criminal cases, of actually how difficult it is to prove some cases. Often the way the Newspapers and TV sum up evidence makes it sound a lot more compelling than it actually was when put before the court and tested through cross-examination.
I wouldn’t be so keen to see channels like Sky News covering court cases. Inevitably they will turn it into a “Big Brother” style show with public votes on a person’s guilt or innocence and no doubt having commentary from lay persons with little understanding. I’d rather see the BBC step in and do a channel along the lines of BBC Parliament, where court was simply covered (with a slight delay allowing for things that could not be broadcast on live television to be censored out). This would mean there would be no “Big Brother” style voting and idiotic “Have Your Say” style commentary on matters which a lay person does not have the greatest understanding on. Placing it on a format such as BBC Parliament would also mean that it would only attract those with an interest (granted this is most likely going to be lawyers, law students and those with aspirations to study the law), but with the footage available it could be used to give a greater sense in these short news reports of what has actually happened in court. In reality, court is rather boring most of the time (as those of us who have any knowledge of the law know all to well) so how many people would actually tune into such a channel is debatable (but then BBC Parliament is also rather dry, but yet has survived).
Of course I am all for freedom of expression, however, the type of freedom of expression the “Big Brother” style court coverage would produce could be damaging to the legal system and to individuals as a whole.
There have been issues touted in the past around contempt of court, but as Steve Raeburn pointed out in his article on this subject the contempt of court laws are overdue a reworking to take account of the digital age and that allowing TV cameras into court rooms could be the impetus to overhaul these laws.
I am not talking about every case being televised here, but I am talking about serious cases before the upper courts where there is a significant public interest: both criminal and civil. With Cameras placed in all the upper courts the channel could easily be turned into a 24 hour channel (similar to BBC Parliament) with the day-time and early evening given over the coverage (“live” and recorded) of court room action and the late night and early hours given over the programmes by lawyers for lawyers debating current legal issues.
This is certainly something that has to be re-visited and given some serious consideration and debate amongst those within the profession. I would very much like to hear what you, my readers, have to think about this subject so please do give your opinions in the comments section! I certainly have no issues with cameras regulalry being allowed into Court, provided it is done sensibly.