Law: Trial by TV: the jury is still out

The OJ and Louise Woodward trials have damaged the case for allowing cameras into courts.
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TRIAL BY media may be a tired old cliche, but for lawyers and editors it is a live issue.

In 1912, a photograph appeared in the Daily Mail of Frederick Seddon being sentenced to death for murder at the Old Bailey. Its publication outraged the judiciary, but sold a lot of newspapers. More recently, the House of Lords' first decision on Pinochet was televised, and last week, both newspapers and television followed the judge and jury in Britain's first war-crimes trial to the snow-covered Belarussian village of Domachevo to visit the scene of a wartime massacre.

A conference held recently at the Southampton Institute's Centre for Media and Justice focused on whether cameras ought be let into the courts. The panel included the libel expert Peter Carter-Ruck; Nick Catliff, producer of The Trial, which was filmed in Scotland and was the only television programme to have shown British court proceedings; and Christian Chartier, responsible for the filming of The Hague war crimes tribunals. Marcel Berlins, presenter of Radio 4's Law in Action, was also there, as was Louise Woodward, who is now studying for a law degree at South Bank University.

It is an issue that always recalls - but seldom gets beyond - the perceived failings of the OJ Simpson trial. OJ's largely unpopular acquittal has been blamed on the presence of television cameras. Judicial process was seen to be done, but in being seen was somehow seen to be undone.

"The very notion of courtroom cameras is an assault on the integrity of justice," says Berlins. He echoes much of the legal profession by saying that courts are places for hearing and trying to resolve serious matters, and not for entertaining a television audience.

"If people want to see a trial, they are entirely free to go to court and watch one."

But the prime argument for keeping the courts camera-free is that the course of justice might be jeopardised. Juries come under pressure from "man on the Clapham omnibus" co-jurors, who would have access only to edited highlights. Dull but critical evidence would be cut, not in the public interest, but for the public's interest.

Louise Woodward recalled: "At my trial, the most important evidence was medical - but people got bored by that, so it was edited out."

And witnesses are reluctant enough to give evidence in the absence of a camera. Berlins argues: "Imagine being `idiotised' in front of 10 million people. Is that really what we want to subject our witnesses to?"

But jurors are under pressure to acquit or convict anyway. Witnesses could be asked for their consent before being caught on camera. Faces could be pixelated, and voices disguised. Judges would be given strict control over filming in their courtrooms.

Nobody doubts that the due process of justice should be shielded from the media's insatiable appetite for new thrills. Nick Catliff's view is that if the courts are televised, they become "seen as part of society rather than some strange thing run by people who went to Oxford and Cambridge". This remains true, even if arguments against courtroom cameras are convincing in every other way.

Peter Carter-Ruck suggested a more tenuous reason to film trials: that catching criminals on film "named and shamed them", furthering the interests of justice.

Ten years ago, a Bar Council report suggested experimenting with the use of television cameras. But a spokes- man said that the debate has since been "pushed back" by subsequent events - the trials of Louise Woodward and OJ Simpson and the tribulations of Bill Clinton. These, he says, have "distorted public attitudes towards the judicial process", which itself was at risk of being distorted by television.

Catliff says he doesn't believe he will see a televised English trial in his lifetime. Whether public demand will be satisfied with another 40 years of pastel sketches - since the 1925 Criminal Justice Act, there has been a ban on photography in English and Welsh courtrooms - is a moot point.

From a wider perspective, Chartier argues that trials such as The Hague war crimes tribunals, any Lockerbie trial and the re-hearing of the Pinochet case should be televised - because the cases affect so many people.

Similarly, most of the world's Jewish people have a moral stake in the outcome of the current trial of Anthony Sawoniuk - but space in Court 12 of the Old Bailey is limited.