A first for British television as cameras are allowed into Court of Appeal - and even the PM was glued (although his brother did have a leading role)

Donald Macintyre witnesses the latest in reality TV – the first ever screening of Court of Appeal proceedings

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The Independent Online

It was more than a little like travelling back in time. Cameras have been banned in the courts (apart from the Supreme Court, a recent invention and one in which the judges don’t even wear wigs and robes) since the Criminal Justice Act of 1925. But anybody who had wandered into a public gallery of the Royal Courts of Justice in the mid-1920s would have found the first-ever televised Court of Appeal proceedings instantly recognisable.

Partly of course it was the case itself. Counterfeiting coins is as old as money itself, and the application to appeal by Kevin Fisher against a seven-year sentence for his role in a plot to forge one-pound coins on what the trial judge had described as “very substantial scale” would have been entirely familiar. Was it not such a counterfeiter whom Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson ran to ground in the Conan Doyle story “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs”?

But it was also the almost excruciating politeness, especially on the part of Fisher’s counsel, Alexander Cameron, who happens to be the Prime Minister’s elder brother.

The broadcasters, while justly emphasising what a historic moment this was after years of tortuous negotiations to get cameras into the courts, kept half-apologising that the case was one that would not normally be of much interest. They needn’t have done. How else would we have seen in action the QC whom at Eton his younger brother, had, by his own account, looked up to, and perhaps been somewhat in awe of? 

As David Cameron, who watched his brother’s appearance on his iPhone on a train to Wolverhampton, noted, the “noise and atmosphere” of the Court of Appeal was “rather different” from that of Prime Minister’s Questions. And how. At one point Lord Justice Pitchford, presiding, interrupted the barrister to dispute his contention that since one of Fisher’s co-defendants had received a much lighter sentence, his own client’s should be shortened.

His collaborator might have been “fortunate, but the fact that he was generously treated by the judge doesn’t necessarily mean the sentence imposed on the applicant is unfairly disparate”. Cameron, his voice a little plummier, his face and figure a little fuller, than his younger brother’s, replied swiftly: “My Lord, I completely agree with that….”, before going on with consummate courtesy to add that the difference between two and seven years was nevertheless “too great a difference for the Court, in my respectful submission, to accept”.

For a second you wildly imagined his brother saying at the despatch box: “I completely agree with the Leader of the Opposition on that point, but perhaps if he considers it in a slightly different way….” or some such. And unimagined it pretty quick.

So this was hardly big box office. Yet for all the lack of excitement generated – say – by the live coverage of the OJ Simpson trial, it was a breakthrough moment.

There has long been a disjunction over the fact that those few who have the time can watch court proceedings from the public gallery but not on TV. James Harding, director of news and current affairs for the BBC, which with ITN, Sky News and the Press Association had successfully persuaded in 2011 the then Justice Secretary Ken Clarke to lift the filming ban, was surely right to describe it as a “landmark moment for justice and journalism” which would help viewers to a better understanding of the judicial system in England and Wales.

The other constant since the 1920s is the pleasantly old-fashioned language – such as the repeated use of the near archaic “one” by the QC. Cameron, whose colleagues from his chambers, Three Raymond Buildings, were representing some of the defendants, including Charlie Brooks, in a rather higher profile hearing across at the Old Bailey, was citing an earlier case as a precedent for shortening his client’s sentence: “So my Lords, there one has someone who is doing all the things one would be doing if one was a prime instigator of a whole operation, part of which includes custody and distribution [of forged coins] which was all the applicant was concerned with...”.

But the presence of Cameron, who said he had been “surprised” to be pleading his case on live TV and had only learnt that he would be doing so the previous day, was not the only point of interest. We learnt a bit about the forgers’ world: the 20 cardboard boxes each containing 1,000 counterterfeit coins, and the brown blank metal discs (nearly 1.5 million of them) that had been used as evidence against Fisher; the “purchase of special equipment, ink and foil, memory sticks”; the use of “pseudonyms and front companies” in one earlier case. And in another case, the difficulties one set of forgers had found in getting the right quality paper to fake $6m worth of banknotes. And in this case, the car swapping – or as Lord Justice Pitchford put it, the “anti-surveillance attempts” Fisher’s forgery ring had mounted, including on his fateful journey from his home in Hertfordshire to where he was arrested at Park View Farm in Essex.  

It must have been an odd day for Fisher, who was not in court but may still have been able to see the proceedings – and their outcome – in real time. But also a disappointing one. After briefly withdrawing to consider what had really been little more than an oral supplement to Cameron’s written submission, Lord Justice Pitchford announced that he was rejecting his grounds for appeal. So a bad day for Kevin Fisher. But a great day, surely, for open justice.