Leading article: Televising court cases is in the interests of enhanced justice

The presence of cameras would go a long way to improving public confidence in the system


It is easy to be dismissive of the idea that courts should be televised. A few references to bread and circuses, the public stocks, and an interactive red button to allow the viewers to vote on the sentence should do the trick. Or a sneer about how we already have televised justice in the form of programmes like The Jeremy Kyle Show. But such a response would be mistaken because there is in fact much to be said for the idea of opening our judicial system to the wider scrutiny of public view.

Allowing television cameras into court may be an extension of the "name-and-shame" impulse felt by backwoodsmen of the Conservative Party – and in pushing for the changes, television's pursuit of ratings must be acknowledged – but there remain persuasive arguments for the idea from the progressive and liberal tradition of modern politics. The arguments against televising the judiciary are pretty much the same as those deployed by opponents of televising the legislature. It took 20 years of debate to allow cameras into Parliament but few would now deny that it has proved a real advance in increasing public awareness of the political process.

The courts are the last bastion of English public life to remain sequestered from the gaze of the public when it comes to the technology which dominates modern life. Of course any member of the public can walk into the public gallery of a courtroom at present to witness the proceedings. But geography, space and time all unnecessarily limit the degree of public transparency, and thereby accountability, that can at present be upheld. The Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, spoke yesterday of the need to demystify the judicial process but what is required is much more. Cameras in courts could go a long way to upholding or indeed improving public confidence in the justice system.

In part that is to do with understanding. If the public saw prosecutors making the case and defence lawyers critiquing it, and then heard the judge summing up they would have much greater faith in what goes on in court.

Televising proceedings would also place a greater obligation on judges to deliver fair and consistent decisions. Disparities in sentencing have been a controversial feature of the aftermath of the riots that flared across England last month, with prison governors, lawyers, community leaders and human rights campaigners all raising questions about the severity and even-handedness of some of the punishments handed out. The presence of cameras in court would surely limit the scope for magistrates to go too far their own way in handing down sentences, whether light or heavy.

Of course there are dangers. Lawyers might on occasion play to the court of public sympathy, much as some do now to the smaller audience of the jury. There might be a temptation for television to select certain judges – Cherie Booth, the wife of the former prime minister, springs to mind – for special scrutiny, and if we ended up with the judiciary on trial that would be very damaging. There might be occasions when cameras might make a witness extra nervous and less credible as a result. But it should not be beyond the wit of the legal authorities to guard against such problems, and in any case judges should retain the right to direct that the cameras be shut down for parts of a trial.

The introduction of cameras to courts is a far more radical suggestion than, say, the occasionally mooted discontinuation of the flummery of wigs and gowns on the grounds that they overawe ordinary people. It is understandable, therefore, that Mr Clarke wants to proceed cautiously, beginning with only the judgments in the Court of Appeal before extending coverage to Crown Courts later. But the arguments for far greater openness are clear. Justice must not just be done but must be seen to be done – and as widely as modern technology makes possible.

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