Broadcasting bits of court cases might be a good idea
FORGET nudes and landscapes. For Priscilla Coleman, a courtroom artist, suspected criminals make more compelling subjects. Her task is a tricky but necessary one. It is forbidden to film, photograph or even draw what is happening inside most courts in England and Wales; Scotland’s legal system is separate. During the recent prosecution of an 11-year-old rioter in Highbury, London, she was forced to complete her sketch in a hairdresser’s salon, after court security turfed her out of the lobby. “They should just let cameras in and get over it,” she says.
That might well happen. The BBC, Sky News and ITN are lobbying Kenneth Clarke, the justice secretary, to relax the filming embargo. They want civil judgments and criminal sentencing remarks to be beamed to a wider audience. Mr Clarke agreed that the sentencing proposals chime with the government’s commitment to transparency; he plans to consult senior judges about what to do next.
Some legal bigwigs like the idea. Lord Neuberger, the second-most-senior judge in England and Wales, has expressed cautious approval for televised hearings. Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions, and the Criminal Bar Association believe that relaxing the ban would be good in principle. Max Hill, the association’s chairman-elect, points to the sentencing of Levi Bellfield—convicted in June for the murder of Milly Dowler, the girl whose phone was at the centre of the hacking scandal—as an example of what could be broadcast. But he is wary of filming witnesses, and draws the line at juries.
Other countries may wonder what the fuss is about. At the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, war-crimes trials are screened in full, usually with a 30-minute buffer so that sensitive statements can be blotted out. Many American states routinely allow recording in their courts—to the disgust of the French, who were horrified by images of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the IMF (pictured), in the dock.
Britain has its own innovative court chroniclers. Observers can “tweet” in open court in England and Wales, and sometimes in Scotland too—where judges are less squeamish about technology, and occasionally entertain camera crews with participants’ consent. The Supreme Court, the country’s highest judicial body, is exempt from the camera ban (whereas America’s is still subject to one); it gives footage to media companies such as Sky News, which says that the court’s live internet feed, online since May, receives 90,000 daily hits. But the arid legal hairsplitting that dominates that chamber poses fewer policy problems than the messier lower courts do.
Supporters of reform say openness should be a democratic presumption, and that cameras in court will improve confidence in the legal system. Sceptics point out that due process requires discretion. Juries should be sheltered from political or sensationalised scrutiny, they say. Cameras might make witnesses cagey, or unduly humiliate defendants.
A study in America found that, on the contrary, witnesses are franker when being filmed. And American judges and lawyers deny (not always plausibly) that they act up for the camera. For the moment, limiting the footage to judges would avoid the thorniest problems. The robed and bewigged lords of the bench may soon be more of a media fixture than the rough courtroom sketch.