The case for welcoming cameras in courtrooms


10:54 am - September 7th 2011

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contribution by Ruhi Khan

As a television journalist who has covered some high profile court cases (in India, where cameras are also not allowed in court), the proposal by Ken Clarke will save reporters a lot of work and create transparency in reporting.

I remember running from a court to give a live report and trying to remember the Judge’s exact words and the exact expression of the characters involved, to give the viewers an idea of what happened. It is a herculean task and often open to interpretation by the reporter.

And its not just the words but the descriptions of the accused – what he/she was wearing, whether he was shaven, whether they smiled etc – all have to be conveyed to the graphic designer to create the perfect courtroom sketch.

But most importantly, televised sentencing will bring in transparency and also closure for the victims and those in similar situations. This is particularly important in cases of mass murderers, terrorism or riots where several hundred people need to see for themselves the punishments handed out to their culprits.

But in the US, the most popular case was the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, which millions watched thanks and turned the courtroom into a theatre of the century, as one commentator put it.

But some critics said the witnesses stepped forward only to get their 60 seconds of fame. Another Judge thought some witnesses felt intimidated by the cameras placed less than six feet away.

The cameras can also be a check on autocratic judges and force lawyers to stay within boundaries of acceptable behaviour and prepare better arguments.

It won’t be an easy task to show televised sentencing. You simply cannot have television crews rushing in with cameras into courtrooms. This will only disrupt court proceeding, create chaos and turn it into a carnival.

There will have to be cameras installed in courtroom with feed available to newsrooms. But how do you decide which cases are important to broadcast? Is it fair to only broadcast sentencing? What about acquittal? And then why just show the end and not the entire trial?

Unless these questions are answered and hopefully with well researched alternatives, rejoicing on Cameron’s decision to welcome TV cameras in court is simply premature.

—-
Ruhi Khan blogs here. She has worked as a journalist in Mumbai and London in both print and broadcast media. A Jefferson fellow and recipient of the Mary Morgan Hewitt Award for Women in Journalism in 2008, Ruhi currently lives in London and writes on campaigning issues.

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Reader comments


1. John Green Mafro

I suppose it will be like Britain new version of Judge Judy or something. It would make compelling TV but I still prefer not to see people handed their sentences on prime time TV.

Cameron good job bring in cameras in court. Would be fun to see those scumbag rioters been sent to jail on TV. Will get a bunch of mates and go to the pub and watch it while drowning beer after beer.

Go on shame them in front of everyone so that lessons are learned and they don’t go around looting my shops and burning my buildings.

@2 – Never mind things like the arson attack on the completely innocent person who the police published the full address of, eh?

A typical call for mob justice, and a good example of why this is a stupid idea.

4. OJ Simpson fan

@3
its not mob justice. Its mob interest.;)
I saw the OJ SImpson trail on TV. What fun. We were glued to television all through the trial. It was the best reality TV of the day. And that is what it was reality TV and nothing else.

How can a proposal by Ken Clarke be a television journalist?

@2 – Never mind things like the arson attack on the completely innocent person who the police published the full address of, eh?

According to Sunny, the police did not publish that man’s full address.

“The cameras can also be a check on autocratic judges and force lawyers to stay within boundaries of acceptable behaviour and prepare better arguments.”

Excellent point. We need an end to judges rule which stinks of racism and apartheid. I suggest show the entire trial and let the public judge.

I’m sorry but your first reason for welcoming this proposal seems to be that you find your job hard. I would suggest that there are plenty of journalists out there who would be thankful for the opportunity to brush up on their shorthand.

I used to regularly take notes on court cases and it is difficult and demanding work but not a reason enough to allow cameras in.

“The cameras can also be a check on autocratic judges and force lawyers to stay within boundaries of acceptable behaviour and prepare better arguments.”

You offer a) no evidence that these are regular occurrences and b) that cameras would do anything to alleviate the problem.

It’s an excellent idea, I think. The justice system is ferociously complicated and even though pretty much everyone thinks they have a good understanding of how it works, most people don’t, myself included.

The present situation is this – most people get most of their information about the courts from an industry that profits by intentionally misleading the public in order to stoke their outrage. Having judges explain their verdicts directly to the public is infinitely preferable to having them reported by people who have a vested interest in ensuring that the public are misinformed.

@Adam

I don’t see courtroom reporting as the only way one can brush up on short hand.
As journalist we must aspire to bring in as much transparency to our reporting as possible and no doubt most journalist who covers courtrooms try to make their report as close to reality as possible (and don’t mind the hard work) but its not the same as watching a courtroom proceeding in real time. I don’t expect journalists to resist this move unless they are worried that it would diminish their importance. However reporters’ inputs in such cases can move from merely stating what happened in a court to giving a more detailed background and analysis of the case.

I believe the benefits or the downfall of cameras in courtroom should be open to debate. US states have on varying degrees have seen cameras in their courts for several years and there has been research and books written on the subject. Some experts believe the cameras can keep judges in check while others believe judges will deliver sentences based on public aspirations. The government needs to look up available research (or conduct some) before cameras are introduced in UK courtrooms.

11. Chaise Guevara

“This is particularly important in cases of mass murderers, terrorism or riots where several hundred people need to see for themselves the punishments handed out to their culprits”

Do they? Why?

Justice happens regardless of whether or not we actually get to watch the proceedings on telly. I really don’t see how my or anyone else’s “needs” are being served in this scenario. This argument doesn’t really seem to add much weight to the “for” camp – and there are good arguments for the “against” side, such as those you’ve mentioned and the issue of vigilanteeism brought up by commenters.

As a television journalist who has covered some high profile court cases (in India, where cameras are also not allowed in court), the proposal by Ken Clarke will save reporters a lot of work and create transparency in reporting.

Wouldn’t like to tax our hard-working reporters, would we?

I remember running from a court to give a live report and trying to remember the Judge’s exact words and the exact expression of the characters involved, to give the viewers an idea of what happened. It is a herculean task and often open to interpretation by the reporter.

Well yes, I suppose sacrificing civil rights and basic decency to save you the effort of learning short-hand is a fair payoff.

And its not just the words but the descriptions of the accused – what he/she was wearing, whether he was shaven, whether they smiled etc – all have to be conveyed to the graphic designer to create the perfect courtroom sketch.

Of course, how can we know if justice is carried out if we don’t know if the accused is wearing a shellsuit or a hoodie?

13. flyingrodent

Court verdicts are already on public record, and accused people already appear on TV and in the papers. Putting verdicts on TV won’t make any difference – I can’t see any civil rights objections here.

This is particularly important in cases of mass murderers, terrorism or riots where several hundred people need to see for themselves the punishments handed out to their culprits

Hate to disappoint the public’s bloodlust but the most you’ll see is the sentencing.

If you want to see punishment there are websites that cater for your fantasies.

An excellent idea in general.

It’s all about devils and details, though.

Personally I’d like to see reporting of sentencing of:

a – All Appeal Court / High Court judgements.
b – Probably anything with a District Judge, but that is *very* optimistic.
c – Especially – all superinjunction hearings :-).

It should be modelled on Parliamentary reporting, ideally with transcripts too.

And something done about blog reporters who get excluded.

The big benefit will be that reporting will have a consistent set of data to work from.

Court verdicts are already on public record, and accused people already appear on TV and in the papers. Putting verdicts on TV won’t make any difference – I can’t see any civil rights objections here.

But you don’t get to see the terrified and inarticulate accused – or witnesses – squirm while every aspect of their lives is picked over by highly educated toffs in wigs.

@Adam at 8.

One real problem is that journalistic resources often don’t exist anymore – especially regionally.

If all that it needs is essentially a fixed camera, and the Clerk pressing a button twice, then we have a resource available at relatively little cost.

18. flyingrodent

But you don’t get to see the terrified and inarticulate accused – or witnesses – squirm while every aspect of their lives is picked over by highly educated toffs in wigs.

Oh God, yes, I love that. The justice system as an elitist conspiracy agin the common man! This shit works for literally everything.

Of course, criminals are usually drawn from the criminal, i.e. least wealthy and educated, classes. On the other hand, if you don’t want the public to see you being sentenced, don’t commit crimes.

@Ruhi & Matt

I really don’t think the journalistic angle is particularly strong considering the risks/expense.

The primary argument seems to me to be the idea of ‘open justice’ which is ridiculous, the vast majority of court rooms are open to the public should they wish to attend. Those courts that do have cases of public interest invariably have reporters there. I have been to some pretty insignificant cases involving the not very glamorous world of tax fraud where there were 2 or 3 journalists in attendance.

The truth of the matter if that this is just a measure to sate the public’s blood-lust for retribution and schadenfreude.

“However reporters’ inputs in such cases can move from merely stating what happened in a court to giving a more detailed background and analysis of the case.” I don’t see how cameras would add anything to this other than satisfy a base urge in some people to see lives wrecked and people fall to pieces (which 95% of criminals don’t do anyway).

@11. Chaise Guevara

I have conducted interviews with several victims of terror attacks, murders and atrocities. Unfortunately there is a real desire in them to see (yes SEE) justice being delivered and the ‘face of the culprit when he is put away’. They call it closure. Others might call it a soap opera. Both have a point.

@Ruhi

“I believe the benefits or the downfall of cameras in courtroom should be open to debate.”

Which is what we’re doing here.

“I have conducted interviews with several victims of terror attacks, murders and atrocities. Unfortunately there is a real desire in them to see (yes SEE) justice being delivered and the ‘face of the culprit when he is put away’. They call it closure. Others might call it a soap opera. Both have a point.”

With all due respect for them the victims of crime aren’t likely to be in the most rational state of mind to make those decisions which ultimately have an impact on everyone in society. Just recently the mother of a murdered girl here in the UK called for the guilty boy to be executed. I can’t imagine the pain she must be going through but she is just plain wrong in this.

These decisions should be made rationally and unemotionally.

22. Chaise Guevara

@ 20

“I have conducted interviews with several victims of terror attacks, murders and atrocities. Unfortunately there is a real desire in them to see (yes SEE) justice being delivered and the ‘face of the culprit when he is put away’. They call it closure. Others might call it a soap opera. Both have a point.”

If closure for actual victims is needed, they can by all means go to court to watch – and I have no issue with the trial being broadcast privately to them, either at the time or later. This sounds like a way to help victims and their relatives that costs us very little.

What I object to is the idea that we all “need” to see people go down, as if we somehow have a human right to watch people being sentenced, regardless of the obvious downsides. Or as if the whole population needs to be able to see this on TV to get closure for something they read about in the papers.

Of course, criminals are usually drawn from the criminal, i.e. least wealthy and educated, classes. On the other hand, if you don’t want the public to see you being sentenced, don’t commit crimes.

Wow, if everyone being tried is guilty why not skip the trial altogether and get straight to the flogging? Mustn’t keep the punters waiting.

24. flyingrodent

Wow, if everyone being tried is guilty why not skip the trial altogether and get straight to the flogging? Mustn’t keep the punters waiting.

This has been one of the most inspired pieces of thread-trolling I’ve ever seen!

Utterly irrelevant implication that policy (x) is an elitist plot against the honest citizen? Check! Wild overstatement of what policy (x) will actually do? Check! Incorrect implications intentionally drawn from minimal evidence? Check!

Do keep it up. I demand a good bit of Godwinning before this one is over.

Let’s assume that Mr and Mrs Rodent went dogging, an activity that is legal in England and Wales, and that whilst waiting for their fellow doggers to turn up, Mr and Mrs R were robbed and assaulted. A few weeks later, the police arrested some youths, after which a court case ensued.

That court case sounds like the basis for some great train wreck television. The only witnesses, Mr and Mrs R, will be questioned about the circumstances of the crime. We can expect embarrassment and possibly some showboating if the defending barrister has theatrical aspirations.

It is true that such a court case would generate unpleasant written press reports. But a video report, salaciously edited, would earn wider coverage and deliver more humiliation on the unfortunate Rodents who are innocent victims.

With regard to justice, what does filming court cases provide that is not already delivered by written press coverage, court records and public access to the court room? A well considered summary provides far more insight than a one minute video report in the news. And if news programmes have a one minute slot to cover a case, you can be sure that we’ll get fewer well considered summaries.

26. Chaise Guevara

@ 25 Charlieman

“That court case sounds like the basis for some great train wreck television. The only witnesses, Mr and Mrs R, will be questioned about the circumstances of the crime. We can expect embarrassment and possibly some showboating if the defending barrister has theatrical aspirations.

It is true that such a court case would generate unpleasant written press reports. But a video report, salaciously edited, would earn wider coverage and deliver more humiliation on the unfortunate Rodents who are innocent victims.”

I was concerned about exactly that when I first heard about this idea – not only the unfair humiliation of innocents, but the danger that witnesses might not come forward if their story was embarrassing. But the impression I’m getting here is that only sentencing would be televised, which presumably wouldn’t require the faces or names of the victims, or the details of testimony, to be broadcast.

I still think it’s a bad idea, though.

Allowing cameras in courtrooms is exactly the sort of thing Hitler would have done! Everyone who thinks it’s a good idea IS EXACTLY LIKE HITLER!!!1!!11!

(Will this do?)

@26. Chaise Guevara

I agree that the current proposal is relatively restrained.

From the BBC report:
“Announcing his plans in a written statement to Parliament, Mr Clarke said: “As a starting point, judgements in the Court of Appeal will be broadcast for the first time. I want to see this expanded to the Crown Court, but I will work closely with the Lord Chief Justice and judiciary on how this could be achieved. I am clear that this must not give offenders opportunities for theatrical public display.

“We will work to ensure this does not hinder the administration of justice and that it protects victims, witnesses, offenders and jurors. Collectively, these plans will open the justice system in an unprecedented manner, allowing the public to judge for themselves how we are performing and to hold us to account.””

That still leaves a lot of opportunity for abuse. The judge’s sentencing summary can be interleaved with actors delivering witness or defendant statements, adding false legitimacy to an enactment.

And there is the further problem of creep. If the state is going to equip courts with video recording facilities, there will be pressure to broadcast other parts of trials.

29. Chaise Guevara

@ 28 Charlieman

“That still leaves a lot of opportunity for abuse. The judge’s sentencing summary can be interleaved with actors delivering witness or defendant statements, adding false legitimacy to an enactment. ”

I don’t like the idea of enactments at all, certainly not ones given an official veneer by being directly linked to the court. That seems to defy the whole point of the exercise.

“And there is the further problem of creep. If the state is going to equip courts with video recording facilities, there will be pressure to broadcast other parts of trials.”

Yes, agreed, but you can argue against almost anything by appealing to slippery slopes. If we raise benefits, it’s a step towards communism; if we cut them, it’s a step towards libertarianism. And so on. It’s entirely possible that this policy will legitimise the idea of televised trials and thus lead to people saying that entire trials should be broadcast – but that doesn’t cast a light on whether the policy itself is a good idea.

My main problem with this is that it seems a dangerous idea that doesn’t deliver any benefits. My secondary problem with it is that it appears designed to appease two rather unpleasant aspects of human nature: voyeurism and vindictiveness.

@29. Chaise Guevara: “Yes, agreed, but you can argue against almost anything by appealing to slippery slopes.”

If an act delivers a clear benefit, then we have to consider it and the slippery slope. However, if the benefit is marginal or non-existent, we adopt the precautionary principle and discard the proposal.

“But in the US, the most popular case was the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, which millions watched thanks and turned the courtroom into a theatre of the century, as one commentator put it.”

How can I put this?

That’s not really the best example you could have chosen to support your argument.

In 2004 while covering a case in the Old Bailey, I was appalled by the behaviour of the tribunal that in my opinion was racist and unjust to the victim – not just the verdict but the conduct. Perhaps with cameras present, it would have been conducted differently.

My argument is that cameras in court leads to transparency and greater understanding of the judicial process. Banning cameras from courts doesn’t ban coverage; it just reduces that coverage to the subjective reports of court correspondents. You would not have the option of forming your own opinion based on what you saw and heard for yourself.

@Ruhi Khan

I’m sorry but your arguments seem to me inconsistent.

1) Body of the blog post your main reason for introducing cameras is that journalists often miss things that they should’ve covered but also the fact that for some victims this brings closure.

2) In your comment you then mention there is a wealth of academic research on the subject without providing any sources or even going so far as to explain the general sides of the debate.

3) Your recent comment relies entirely on an unnamed anecdote from 2004. If you are confident in this you should provide further details as Court records are public documents and transcripts of the relevant case could be obtained. You make an accusation without providing any context.

My argument is that cameras in court leads to transparency and greater understanding of the judicial process. Banning cameras from courts doesn’t ban coverage; it just reduces that coverage to the subjective reports of court correspondents. You would not have the option of forming your own opinion based on what you saw and heard for yourself.

To make such an argument successfully you would need to show some evidence. Perhaps you could link to some of this research you claim is abundant. Otherwise we could argue with equal weight that even if cameras were present people would still remain ignorant of legal procedure and still view the proceedings with their existing prejudices.

@Adam
As a journalist my argument will always be transparency. For the victims it may be closure. For those not directly involved it may mean something or nothing.

Some books/journals you may want to read:
Cameras in the courtroom: television and the pursuit of justice by Marjorie Cohn, David Dow
TV Or Not TV: Television, Justice, and the Courts by Ronald L. Goldfarb
Cameras and the Need for Unrestricted Electronic Media Access to Federal Courtrooms by Susan E. Harding
Cameras in courtrooms: an analysis of television court coverage in Virginia by Teresa Diane Keller
An open courtroom: cameras in New York courts by New York (State). Committee on Audio-Visual Coverage of Court Proceedings
All these extensively use data and findings of studies conducted on the subject.

The case I’m referring to is Kamlesh Bahl vs. Law Society. That was my observation/inference, another person may think differently. And that’s exactly the point!

@Ruhi

As a journalist my argument will always be transparency. For the victims it may be closure. For those not directly involved it may mean something or nothing.

There are a number of things to be concerned about with this proposal, leaving aside the undoubtedly cynical intent behind it.

That something might save a hack from a bit of leg-work is no recommendation for a substantial change in the way that a central part of a developed society operates.

Regarding transparency, one of the problems we have now is that reporting of court cases generally is substandard in both quantity and quality. If we had journalists and editors who were committed to reporting facts without loaded language or sensationalism, then there would scarcely be any need for this gimmick (which is what it really is).

The next issue I have is that it is partial – cameras will only cover the judges’ sentencing and comments relating to the sentence. This will leave the rest of the proceedings – the evidence and cross-examination for example – as allegedly ‘opaque’ as it is claimed that they are at present.

This is emphatically not an argument for having cameras in there for the whole trial, by the way. There are serious drawbacks to such an idea, and if all of the proceedings are not to be televised, than none of them should be.

Court proceedings at present are – with some obvious exceptions, such as the family courts – sufficiently open to the public to allay most reasonable fears about abuse of the system by those running it.

The idea that the presence of cameras would deter egregious behaviour by judges or magistrates is, I’m afraid, what m’learned friends would call ‘Bollo’. Does anyone think that judges or magistrates in many of the cases we have seen this year would have been deterred from some of their more, erm, adventurous sentencing by the presence of cameras? Or might they have been tempted to go further still, because of the sense that ‘the public’ (as defined by grandstanding politicians or desperate pundits) would look upon their works and approve?

(This is leaving aside the fact that most judges – like the barrister class from which they spring – are frustrated actors: how else do you explain the howls of anguish any time someone suggests that they need not dress up like buzzards in order to take part? It’d take an awful lot to get them to abandon ‘full fig’, and they would be tempted, under the conditions proposed, to ham it up like buggery).

There is nothing in this proposal which is much wider than a cheap, desperate populism which will tittilate the general (imagine a sort-of Jeremy Kyle show where the ‘baddie’ doesn’t get a couple of nights in a swish hotel but three to four years in Wandsworth) without increasing one jot the public’s understanding of how the system works because the public won’t get to see ninety percent of the proceedings.


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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    The case for welcoming cameras in courtrooms http://t.co/gKDK295

  2. DPWF

    The case for welcoming cameras in courtrooms http://t.co/gKDK295

  3. Cryton Chikoko

    The case for welcoming cameras in courtrooms | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/HwXmOnZ via @libcon





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