Televising the revolution

Louise Restell argues the case for letting cameras into court

Thinking about it now, it seems extraordinary that I rushed home on 3 October 1995 to see the live verdict of the OJ Simpson trial on TV. Along with over half of the US population and quite a large percentage of the UK one, I watched as he was found not guilty of the murders of his ex-wife and her friend.

I had never even heard of him before he was arrested and starred in what has been described as the trial of the century. It was all so over the top and showbiz it didn’t even occur to me that we should put TV cameras in English courts.

That probably wasn’t the best example to start with, but it’s exactly the absurdity of the OJ Simpson trial that is used by opponents of televising criminal courts to warn against its potentially damaging effects. The daddy of all legal bloggers, Charon QC, has described the government’s announcement that court judgments will be televised as “justice as spectacle for the ravening horde”, and denounced the idea as ‘Strictly Come Sentencing’. Now that I would like to see, barristers and their clients in spangly tights cha-cha-cha-ing to Ricky Martin.

He also suggests the media will only want to broadcast sensational cases such as “corrupt MPs”, “paedos” and “the flotsam and jetsam of a Hogarthian nightmare on trial”.

I think he is assuming the public is entirely made up of celebrity-hungry, voyeuristic tabloid readers. Even if true, these “sensational” trials are, very often, the ones in the public interest.

What would be wrong with the public being able to see judgement in the cases of, for example, Baby Peter, Sarah Payne or Rachel Nickell? Seeing justice done, fairly and transparently, is not what makes some cases sensational – they already are because of their very, often tragic nature.

Beyond the sometimes crazy US examples there are plenty elsewhere in the world that make our system of keeping everything behind closed doors rather archaic, as if you lot in wigs and gowns have something to hide. As is often the case in the UK, the Scots have led the way and have allowed cameras in court since 1992, providing all parties in a case agree.

Significantly, the appeal of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi against his conviction for the Lockerbie bombing was televised in 2002. I don’t remember any suggestion that this was “sensationalised”. In fact I don’t remember anything about it at all, which suggests it was all very proper, a far cry from the OJ circus.

The courts, after all, are public. It is rather absurd that we aren’t allowed to broadcast at least some of what goes on. Instead, unless we have time to kill and can attend the court in person, we have to rely on the interpretations of the media and those really rather quaint drawings. They don’t do much to illuminate or demystify the court process or make the judiciary in any way accountable. That’s quite patronising – it’s my society and I want to see how it works, thank you.

Similar arguments were paraded about during the debates about televising parliament. The doubters felt it would trivialise that venerable institution and encourage MPs to grandstand, throwing soundbites around rather than take part in serious debate. It’s hard for me to say if this is true or not since I wasn’t able to see parliament in action before it was on the TV. The gallery can only fit about 160 people and in 1989, at 17, I had better things to do. But the soundbite certainly existed before the cameras came – Churchill anyone?

Research in 2000 did suggest that a generation of young people had been put off party politics, presumably because they could see how it makes supposedly grown-up people behave. But is it really televising debates that has undermined public confidence in MPs, or did they manage that all on their own?

The court debate is a little different. There are other considerations apart from where you are going to stick the camera. The government’s proposal is to allow only judgments to be televised. This would protect victims and witnesses and prevent the sort of “I’m a celebrity barrister, put me on TV” playing to camera that naysayers are afraid of.

The downside, and there is always a downside, is the public then only see guilty verdicts and therefore, the argument goes, get a skewed impression of the judicial process. This could be offset to some extent if, as bar chairman Peter Lodder QC has suggested, opening and closing statements could also be filmed. Either way, I think it’s a good thing as it would start to shed light on the most controversial aspect of criminal trials – sentencing. It might even dispel those vicious rumours that judges are totally out of touch.

Whatever the practical difficulties, and I am not denying there are some significant ones, I find myself, for possibly the first time, agreeing with David Cameron: we should allow cameras in the court room. This is a rather shocking state of affairs so it’s frankly a relief to discover he is coming at it from a rather different perspective from me, believing, according to the Guardian, that it can serve as a “moment of public reckoning”.

I am not entirely comfortable with that idea, and I am not at all sure that judicial pronouncements could, or should, be the 21st-century equivalent of gawping at the man in the stocks on the village green. But equally I don’t see why we shouldn’t be allowed to know why he’s in the stocks and not being pilloried instead. After all, it’s being done in our name.

This is a debate the luddites won’t win. The Supreme Court is already fitted out with cameras. Believe it or not 90,000 people tune in every day to watch, although I can’t admit to being one of them. Even Twitter was allowed in court at the end of last year.

Watching MPs trying to hold back the tide of TV coverage became oh-so tedious, being debated 11 times in 22 years before getting the go ahead, that I am sure some voted in favour out of sheer boredom. TV in court will be just the same. You can’t stop it. Better just go and get a new wig instead.

This post, written by Louise Restell, first appeared on the Quality Solicitors blog