Jury still out on court cameras

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The Independent Online

Legal Affairs Correspondent

English lawyers may have shuddered at the television images of the OJ trial, but they draw different conclusions from what they saw.

One school of thought believes the trial showed that a media circus is the inevitable consequence of opening up courtrooms to television cameras, and that it is now unlikely to happen. The other view is that television is neutral, and what has been exposed are the deficiencies of Californian justice, not the effects of courtroom cameras.

Cameras are banned in courts in England and Wales. There was an experiment with a recorded trial in Scotland this year, but the senior English judiciary is divided on the issue. The Master of the Rolls, Sir Thomas Bingham, favours an experiment in civil courts to encourage understanding of the way they operate. The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor, opposes televising criminal trials.

Stephen Kay QC, secretary of the Criminal Bar Association, said yesterday that if cameras were allowed in English courts, there would be accompanying commentary, and the participants in the trial would have to have the right to explain their conduct. "Inevitably you would end up influencing juries with material from outside the courtroom."

He said there was already a problem with press coverage, but the effect of television on people was qualitatively different from print. He added that the presence of cameras would affect the way people behaved giving evidence. "Even if it was not shown until after the verdict, somebody is going to be influenced by the thought that 10 million people will see them."

The Bar Council spent a year in the late 1980s studying the likely effects of televising trials, and recommended it should be tried, although for education, not entertainment. Jonathan Caplan QC, who chaired the investigation, said: "Television coverage of the OJ trial has probably been one of the better ways of keeping people informed of the daily progress." Television could not be ignored; it was the main source of news for 70 per cent of the population. In Britain there would not be a media circus because the same contempt of court rules would apply to television which limit newspapers now.

"I agree television needs to be introduced with caution," Mr Caplan said. "The judge could kick out the cameras at any time if he decided they were not in the interests of justice."

The case has also raised the question of juries in complex cases. Mr Kay believes juries sometimes make decision on conscience grounds, and that has to be accepted.

Another senior QC, Anthony Scrivener said the OJ jury's decision was perfectly reasonable on the evidence they had been given. "An English jury would probably have found him innocent too, on the evidence," he said.