Cameras in courtrooms – a fair trial?

By Alexandra Paterson

Home Affairs II’m sat outside Court 6 in Manchester Magistrates’ Court watching Sky News flash up ‘Day 3 of the Oscar Pistorius trial – live updates available for iPad and mobile devices.’ This is another unfortunate of example of the trial of a grave crime becoming a media circus and is part of an ongoing and worrying trend.

It’s nothing new, of course. It was 1994 when Judge Ito ruled that television cameras should be allowed into the OJ Simpson murder trial in what was to become the most publicised trial in American history. As an aside, the law of unintended consequences also ensured that Simpson’s defence lawyer Robert Kardashian’s children would find fame in a number of mediocre reality shows.

In the UK in 1993 the pre trial coverage of the case of Thompson and Venables was so extensive that counsel for the defendants argued to the trial judge that the jury and witnesses would have been prejudiced by it. It also makes it even more difficult for the families for either party to deal with an already painful situation. The media coverage and portrayal of ‘Foxy Knoxy’ Amanda Knox far out shadowed that of the deceased Meredith Kercher. This is something which the family of Ms Kercher found difficult to deal with.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all in favour of freedom of the press and indeed before I started to practice law I worked as a court reporter and journalist. It is fundamental to our legal system that we should have open justice and any member of the public, journalist or not, should be able to attend the public gallery and watch hearings in the criminal courts.

What I find concerning is any media broadcasting of proceedings, in particular of witness evidence. Testimony will always be modified and different if a witness is aware that proceedings are being either filmed or recorded. It’s human nature. The danger that a witness would either be intimidated or tempted to ‘play up’ to the cameras is too real to justify the argument of the public interest.

I note the judge in the Pistorius case has ruled that the entire trial could be broadcast on the radio but there would be no televised coverage of Pistorius’ evidence or that of his defence witnesses. This is still a bridge too far as the privacy of one of the witnesses has already been compromised. After the defence read out a witnesses’ mobile number in court he was inundated with text messages.

South Africa currently has a 24-hour cable TV channel devoted to the trial. The trial has already had to be halted when it became apparent that media outlets had broadcast photographs of a prosecution witness. This clearly showing that the media presence is interfering with and delaying the trial process.

Currently in the UK, only filming of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal is allowed and any evidence of filming or photography in the lower courts would give rise to a criminal offence of contempt of court.

I support the broadcasting from the Appellate courts as binding law is made in them and the public has as much right to view them as they do the Houses of Parliament. What concerns me is that this is a back door to allowing filming in the Crown Court and Magistrates’ Court which would have a detrimental effect on a defendant’s ability to have a fair trial.

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