American-style televised courts move a step closer: Channel 4 to show a British murder trial for first time


The prospect of American-style televised courts has moved a step closer after Channel 4 announced that it is to show a British murder trial in its entirety for the first time.

Remotely-operated cameras were installed in an Edinburgh court room to film the trial of Nat Fraser, a Scottish man accused of murdering his wife, Arlene, whose body was never found.

After three years of negotiation, the Scottish High Court granted permission for the trial to be filmed. The results will be screened as a 90-minute Channel 4 documentary called The Murder Trial.

Filming in crown courts in England and Wales is still prohibited. But the Scottish judicial authorities have declared a willingness to explore the possibility of allowing cameras into courts as long as all the parties involved agree.

The Judicial Office for Scotland gave permission for Windfall Films to film a number of trials, beginning with the retrial last year of Fraser, 53, for the murder of his estranged wife, Arlene, 33, who vanished from her home in New Elgin, Moray, in 1998.

A jury in 2003 found Fraser, who appeared to have a solid alibi for the day she disappeared, guilty.

Although he lost an appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeal in Edinburgh, a retrial was allowed when the Supreme Court in London held that his trial had been unfair because evidence had not been disclosed to the defence lawyers. The verdict was quashed and a retrial held last April, following changes to Scotland’s “double jeopardy” law.

The cameras follow the case over six weeks as the prosecution QC Alex Prentice and the defence QC John Scott dissect 104 pieces of evidence and cross-examine 70 witnesses.

Discreetly-placed remote-controlled cameras allow witnesses to give evidence without the visible distraction of a film crew inside the courtroom.

The cameras show the impact of events on Arlene Fraser’s family, who had been waiting for justice for 14 years. The film goes “behind the scenes” with the QCs, as they discuss the trial’s progress in their chambers.

Channel 4 said the film was designed to “show the process of justice in a Scottish court”. The broadcaster’s publicity material also presents the documentary as a courtroom thriller – “Would they find him (Fraser) innocent or convict him of murder?,” it asks.

Cameras had been permitted in Scottish courts for the bail application for Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi, the convicted Lockerbie bomber. However, the Fraser trial is the first occasion that the cameras were allowed to record a full hearing. Filming always took place at the discretion of the judge.

Fraser, jailed for a minimum of 17 years at the trial after being found guilty for the second time of murdering Arlene, is appealing against the conviction and will return to court next month.

The introduction of cameras was criticised by the Scottish advocate Donald Findlay, QC. “It turns the whole thing into a media circus,” Mr Findlay argued. “Cameras in court will put pressure on people: pressure on witnesses, pressure on lawyers - creating an additional level of stress to something which itself is stressful enough.”

Jay Hunt, Channel 4’s Chief Creative Officer, said she hoped the film would encourage a further loosening of the prohibition on cameras in courtrooms. “We hope to do more of these,” she said. “We went through all the compliance so we can show people in an authentic way what happens in a Scottish court, the cross-examination, the judge and so on. It has to be a good thing.”

Windfall had previously sought to record a murder trial at the High Court in Glasgow in 2009 but the victim’s family withdrew their consent to being involved. Windfall applied for permission to film a second Scottish murder trial for Channel 4 in January.

Courts on camera

History was made last April when television cameras filmed the sentencing of a murder victim for the first time. Cameras at Edinburgh High Court recorded the judge Lord Bracadale telling David Gilroy, 49, that he had shown “chilling calmness and calculation” when he attacked Suzanne Pilley, 38, and disposed of her body. Only the judge and court officials were shown.

Judgements handed down by the UK Supreme Court, the highest in the land, are already filmed. The court is on Twitter and YouTube.

Broadcasters will be allowed into the Court of Appeal from October and senior judges will be offered training before appearing on camera.

Ministers plan to extend filming into crown courts to show judges’ sentencing remarks “in due course”.

Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice, said he feared judges could be booed from the gallery. But added: "I’m perfectly happy with cameras coming into court, provided their presence doesn’t increase the risk that justice won’t be done.”

Damian Green, the Criminal Justice Minister, warned: “There are people who don't want to end up with an American system where you have celebrity lawyers and so on. Taking the first step of having judges read out verdicts and sentences is an extraordinary step forward for the courts. Let’s see how that does.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the iWatch for you? Well, it depends if you want for the fitness tech, or the style
Astronauts could be kept asleep for days or even weeks
scienceScientists are looking for a way to keep astronauts in a sleeplike state for days or weeks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This publishing company based i...

Ashdown Group: Content Manager - Publishing

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Guru Careers: Report Writer / Reporting Analyst

£25 - 30k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Report Writer / Reporting Analyst is nee...

Guru Careers: German Speaking Account Manager / Account Executive

£24-30K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A German speaking Account Manager ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own