Why TV in Court is a Good Idea

By Roz Morris, Managing Director, TV News London  

Would you take the Tube to a public hanging?  Amazingly that’s what some Londoners were able to do in the mid 19th century when the first London Underground line opened in 1863.  Public hangings were not abolished until 5 years later in 1868 when the  law changed to make all executions take place in prisons instead of in public.  In London one of the main sites for public executions, which drew large and enthusiastic crowds, was outside Newgate Prison next to the Old Bailey which is still England’s Central Criminal Court and  venue for many murder trials each year.

Taking the Tube to a hanging is a truly startling thought on so many levels.  It starkly highlights the frequent overlapping of the old and the new in Victorian England.  And it’s not that long ago.  Yet, now it’s been reported that the British  Government plans to allow television cameras into courts in England and Wales for the first time, you would have thought that public hangings were back on the agenda to judge by some of the critical reactions.   

Will our courts become a new form of reality TV?  Aren’t we just copying the United States and devaluing British Justice?  Will this mean trial by media?  Are we turning the courts into a circus entertainment?  These are just some of the questions posed by the surprising number of really very grumpy people who appeared on Twitter to castigate the British Government for even thinking of opening up our courts to any form of live public scrutiny.  

Can it be that  these people have never watched Judge Judy? Or Court TV? And did they avert their gaze like genteel Victorian ladies when footage of the trial of the teenage murderer of the two British men shot in Sarasota, Florida was recently broadcast?

Perhaps they’re worried that the extremely popular Chinese TV programmes interviewing prisoners on death row are somehow lumbering towards us,  even though we stopped state executions altogether in Britain in 1965.   But of course they haven’t given up executions in the United States where a fascination with executions and executed killers is alive and well.  Yeah I know - I couldn’t resist.   And nor could Werner Herzog whose latest documentary film ‘ Into the Abyss – a Tale of Death, a Tale of Life’ interviews men on death row in Texas. 

There’s no doubt that allowing TV cameras into courts will be a big cultural change here in England.  The current situation is that  British courts are very closed in culture and have very strict rules about reporting and images.  Filming of any kind is currently banned in all courts in England and Wales by Acts of Parliament.  (All except the Supreme Court which is a recent, modern invention and has no trials, just judges giving decisions).  

At a time when the British Government is also controversially proposing that cases involving sensitive intelligence information should be heard in secret by a judge and "special advocates" in civil cases brought against the government,  the growing public perception of the English courts as a separate, secretive world has never been more highlighted.

English law currently bans photography in court and even prohibits court artists from doing their drawings in the courtroom.  They have to go out of court and sketch away quickly with their chalks and charcoal capturing from memory images of the accused, any victims, and the general scene in court.    

Stills photographers and TV crews can currently only take pictures and film outside courts and that means outdoors.  So the British Parliament will have to change the law and pass new legislation to allow TV cameras into courts.  

In Scotland there is no similar ban, but all parties must agree before cases can be broadcast.  And yes the trial of the ‘dying’ Lockerbie bomber was televised, but that was held in the Netherlands.  In the United States 38 out of the 50 states allow cameras into both criminal and civil courts for the whole trial, subject to the agreement of the judge.  

Conservative MP Roger Gale, a former television producer who now appears to mistrust all his former colleagues,  has told the Daily Express newspaper that he is against cameras in courts. He says televising parliament has resulted in grandstanding by MPs and the same could happen with what he calls "eccentric legal professionals".

But of course grandstanding by MPs and by lawyers has always taken place without TV cameras and with historical examples too numerous to mention.  I remember similar objections when the idea of televising the British parliament was first suggested.  Britain was behind in bringing that in as well.  Many countries were already televising their parliaments when we took the radical step of boring people to death with constant televising of the Lords and Commons.   

It was a giant leap which - apart from the weekly shouty highlight of Prime Minister's Questions and a few surprisingly interesting MPs committees and inquiries such as the current Leveson Inquiry into the culture and ethics of the British media – has revealed that some MPs and members of the House of Lords think they are paid by the public to fall asleep on the comfortable leather benches provided in the debating chambers. (Justice Secretary Ken Clarke himself providing notable recent examples). 

If court cases were broadcast continuously, similar sleepiness would be revealed.  The reality of being in court is that reporters, and those who have served on juries, will know there is a  type of mind-numbing boredom peculiar to court cases.  I know from my own experience of court reporting that you just can’t say you’ve ever been really bored until you’ve experienced the total, heavyweight, eyelid lowering boredom of a long court case. It really is very difficult to stay awake throughout.  But don’t worry -- you won’t have to experience that with the current British Government proposals for TV cameras in court. 

Their plan is that televising will only apply to the judge’s summing up, the sentence passed, and the judge’s explanation as to why a punishment has been imposed.  Jurors will not be shown at any time.  Michael Jackson or Michael Jackson’s doctor or  O J Simpson this is not.  The Government has indicated that the current strict rules on TV filming and photography will remain.

“I am clear that this (change) must not give offenders opportunities for theatrical public display” Ken Clarke, the Justice Minister, has said. The aim is to improve the transparency of justice and public understanding of courts and it is also backed by Prime Minister David Cameron and by the Director of Public Prosecutions.. 

So will the courts in England and Wales benefit from allowing TV cameras into their currently unfilmed sacred spaces? I think yes.  This is a positive move.  Surely it is better in the ever-increasing age of openness and transparency produced by modern technology not to keep our courts closed and old-fashioned in their approach?  Justice should be seen to be done and we now see news on TV and You Tube, not just in newspaper reports, a technology dating from the age of the quill pen.  

Courts need to catch up with the way the public lives now. They also need to show the public that the peaceful resolving of difficult crimes in court is a better way than the violent revenge culture so often prominently promoted in TV soaps and films.  

To build and maintain public confidence in British justice, we need to open up our courts to more scrutiny and fresh air.  And also to expand the number of paperless legal cases in Britain  as in a  recent experiment using digital pads and viewing screens instead of the usual piles and piles of paper files. This was well received by all parties.  

So can lawyers and judges cope with the 21st century?  They now have the chance to prove they can and that they have at last finally left the 19th century behind whether they travel by Tube or not.

Published 04 April 2012