The Independent, Thursday 29 March 2012
There is a difference between sitting in the public gallery and seeing clips on TV
It’s hardly a secret that the debate on law and order tends to be skewed to the right of the political spectrum. Sentences are too short, prisons are too soft: the discourse of more punishment, less rehabilitation, is depressingly familiar. Now the Government seems ready to cave in to demands that TV cameras should be allowed into courtrooms in England and Wales, supposedly to reassure us that justice is actually being done.
The head of Sky News, John Ryley, made exactly that argument in reaction to reports that a proposal to allow limited filming will be included in the Queen’s Speech in May: “We’re delighted that after many years of campaigning from Sky News, we now have the opportunity to work with the judiciary to ensure justice can be seen to be done.” The arrogance is breathtaking, as though confidence in the criminal justice system can be achieved only through a medium – television – whose chief function is to provide a constant stream of talent contests and reality shows.
The Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, said last year that judgements in the Appeal Court would be broadcast as a starting point. Now the Government seems prepared to allow filming of the judge’s summing-up and sentencing in Crown courts.
In a recent letter to the party leaders, broadcasters claimed that TV cameras in courts would guarantee a “fundamental freedom” by making the public gallery “open to all”. This cannot be true, given the vast number of trials going on every day, and broadcasters will almost certainly cherry-pick cases involving notorious defendants, which is what happens in the US.
There is also a difference between sitting in the public gallery, listening to both sides of the argument, and watching short clips of the most dramatic moments. We’re told that identities of victims, witnesses and jury members will be protected if filming is allowed in Crown courts, but it’s hard to see how that will happen when the Government comes under pressure – as it will – to extend the experiment. And one of the likely effects of showing murder and terrorist trials would be a demand for more condign punishments.
I have personal experience of giving evidence in a courtroom when proceedings are being televised. In November last year, as I arrived at the Leveson Inquiry, I was told that my testimony would be broadcast live – and it increased the pressure of what was already a daunting experience. I’d have felt even worse if I’d been giving evidence in a rape trial with TV cameras recording every moment.
If there is a need to reduce the “mystique” of courtrooms, there are ways of doing it without imposing the additional burden of TV cameras on frightened, anxious people. The criminal justice system is too important to allow it to be turned into just another source of cheap television.