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Cameras in our courts – only a shutter click away

When I was writing The Pinocchio Brief I toyed for some time with the idea of “going the whole hog;” not only would Raymond (and Judith and Constance) have to face Pinocchio in the court room, they would also encounter a TV subscription channel called PrimeCrime (or something equally pithy) which beamed all criminal trials live into our homes, cameras placed liberally around the court room and a public who would “vote” on the accused’s guilt by “pressing the red button.”   This would do away with expensive juries and (perhaps) with all the lawyers too.  In the end, I balked at the prospect (I couldn’t bring myself to accept the “no lawyers” bit and it struck me it would be rather like “The Trial” meets “The Hunger Games”) so the challenges our protagonists face in TPB are more limited, albeit still real and tricky.

But in a “truth is stranger than fiction” twist, in March 2017, the Government announced a 3-month pilot to film judges’ summing up in various criminal courts across the UK.  And in a recent article in the Times, Lord Pannick QC (a highly-experienced advocate and House of Lords crossbench peer), proposed the immediate introduction of cameras into our courts.  Lord Pannick argued that a criminal trial was already open to the public; it was therefore “indefensible” to impose a general prohibition on “members of the public…watch[ing] any part of any criminal trial from their homes.”

The reasoning behind this scheme is the laudable desire to make our legal system “transparent” and publicly accessible but, if the entirety of our trials are to be filmed (and to be fair, its supporters accept that there may have to be exceptions for certain, potentially vulnerable witnesses) I have grave reservations about the impact this might have on everyone involved and even on the result.

Looking back at OJ Simpson’s trial, with the benefit of 20 plus intervening years, Paul Thaler (who has written two books on the phenomenon), believes that the cameras contributed to the extraordinary length of the trial (supposed to run for 2 weeks, it continued for more than 8 months), and that Judge Ito, who reputedly watched each day’s events back each evening, “lost control” of events, in his attempts to be seen to be giving everyone a fair hearing.

The US “Court TV” channel (clearly with at least one eye on its own financial interests) added commentary and side bars around the “live action” and, effectively, made the public the 13th juror (note my “red button” idea).  And Thaler propounds that the presence of cameras influenced Simpson’s acquittal; no one, including the jurors, wanted to be associated with an unpopular verdict.

All of these issues (and more) stopped me from placing TV cameras in my fictional TPB courtroom.  It seemed a step too far for British justice.  And yet, reading the recent news and views, it seems this may be only the click of a shutter away.

Published inTeaser