Cameras in court 'will let justice be seen to be done'

Edinburgh Television Festival: Lawyer advocates live coverage
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The Independent Online

Media Correspondent

One of Britain's leading barristers yesterday called for television cameras to be admitted into English courts to help demystify the legal process and restore public confidence in it.

Michael Mansfield, the campaigning QC whose successes include the acquittal of the Birmingham Six and Cardiff Three, told the Edinburgh International Television Festival that "justice has to be seen to be done".

Arguing in favour of "unadulterated, gavel-to-gavel" live coverage, Mr Mansfield said: "I'm not here to advocate some kind of entertainment or a commercial opportunity to make a quick buck out of justice. What I'm concerned about is justice being seen to be done. It is about protecting liberties and fundamental rights. The system has to be open to safeguard the right to know. You as taxpayer pay for the justice system, you have the right to see it in operation."

While there were public galleries in court houses, space was limited and the legal system too intimidating for people to want to attend, he said. The public's view of court was distorted byselective press coverage, he said, adding that had cameras been present to witness recent miscarriages of justice, "we might well have got very different results".

Mr Mansfield was supported by David Elstein, director of programmes at BSkyB, which is screening highlights of the OJ Simpson trial in the United States, and Nick Catliff, producer of the BBC documentary series The Trial, which saw cameras in Scottish courts for the first time.

Mr Catliff predicted that televised coverage of court proceedings in Britain would not lead to the media circus that has surrounded the OJ Simpson trial. "It's not the slippery slope. We have a completely different set of contempt of court laws. What is happening with OJ is happening outside court," he said.

Mr Catliff said that the initiative for The Trial had come from Lord Hope, Lord Justice-General of Scotland, who was anxious that the public did not understand and was losing faith in the courts.

Mr Elstein added that television was "by far the best way to open the court system to public view". However, another eminent QC, Gordon Pollock, believed that rather like exposing the Queen's lavatory to the country's gaze, television would lead to a "loss of dignity" in the institution.

Donald Findlay QC feared that ratings-hungry producers would plunder the courts for the most "salacious and violent" cases, giving a misleadingly selective view of the judicial process. "What you will get is edited highlights of what the producer or journalist believes is important," he said.

John Taylor, the former Conservative Party candidate for Cheltenham and a practising lawyer, said that while current press coverage of the courts was not perfect, television would make it worse. "Once you allow cameras into courts, there is no turning back. You will say that there will be conditions [of access], but I think there will be constant pressure on the judiciary to relax those conditions."