Televising trials: What can be learned from US?

A scene from Crown Court, which ran on ITV from 1972 to 1984 Coverage of the courts will be nothing like Crown Court, the 1970s TV drama

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Television cameras are to be allowed to film courts in England and Wales for the first time, it has been announced in the Queen's Speech. What can be learned from the experience in the United States and Scotland?

In the 1970s, a staple of daytime television was the drama serial Crown Court.

In half-an-hour episodes - including a break for adverts - an entire criminal trial in the fictional town of Fulchester was covered, with the drama climaxing in a verdict from a jury of ordinary people at the end of the week.

When it was announced in the Queen's Speech that TV cameras would be allowed in English and Welsh courts for the first time, many people might have imagined something as gripping and dramatic as Crown Court.

But the reality is likely to be very different and a long way from US-style televised trials.

One of Britain's top prosecutors, Brian Altman QC, said the broadcast of US trials such as OJ Simpson and Michael Jackson had had the effect of "sensationalising the proceedings".

But Mr Altman, who prosecutes many high-profile cases at the Old Bailey, said the British system was very different and was not likely to end up in the "free-for-all" seen in US trials.

"One has to understand the process in America against a background of complete almost unfettered freedom and discretion," he said.

The first cameras will be filming only in the Court of Appeal.

Lord Bracadale's sentencing of Scottish murderer David Gilroy last month was a TV first

Later they are expected to be allowed into courts such as the Old Bailey, but will be limited to filming only the judge delivering his sentencing remarks.

Nick Catliff, managing director of independent production company Lion Television, and who in 1994 persuaded a Scottish judge to allow a TV crew to film an armed robbery trial in the sheriff court, said the latest move was a "foot in the door".

"But you won't get the the drama of a verdict," he said.

Unlike south of the border, filming in Scottish courts is entirely up to the discretion of the trial judge.

Last month another judge, Lord Bracadale, sentenced a man to life in prison for the murder of a woman after she broke off their affair. It was the first time cameras had broadcast live from a Scottish court.

Filming and broadcasting in English and Welsh courts are currently banned under Section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925 and Section 9 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981.

The Ministry of Justice said recently that justice must be done and "be seen to be done", and said the government and judiciary was determined to improve transparency and public understanding of courts.

Mr Altman welcomed the idea of TV cameras in court as an important means of educating the public about what actually goes on inside the courtroom.

But he added: "I do have an issue with filming certain witnesses' testimony".

Expert witnesses and police officers may be able to withstand the pressure of their performance being broadcast, he said, but "fearful or intimidated witnesses would refuse to attend court, which could impact seriously if not terminally on the successful prosecution of a case".

In February three of the UK's biggest news providers - BBC, ITN and Sky - wrote to the prime minister urging him to introduce new legislation to allow TV cameras as soon as possible.


  • 1961 - The trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann was screened live in Israel. He was later executed
  • 1979 - Serial killer Ted Bundy goes on trial in Florida. He was later executed
  • 1993 - Erik Menendez and his brother Lyle go on trial for murdering their parents in California. They are jailed for life in 1996 after a hung jury in the first trial
  • 1995 - OJ Simpson acquitted of murdering his estranged wife and her friend in Los Angeles
  • 1997 - British au pair Louise Woodward convicted of killing baby Matthew Eappen in Massachusetts. Her conviction was overturned a year later
  • 2005 - Michael Jackson found not guilty of abusing a 13-year-old boy
  • 2011 - Casey Anthony acquitted of murdering her daughter Caylee in Florida
  • 2012 - Anders Behring Breivik on trial for bomb and gun massacre in Norway

They said: "For too long the UK has lagged behind much of the rest of the world on open justice. The time has come for us to catch up."

But some have reservations about TV cameras in court.

A Victim Support spokesman said: "The justice system does need to be more transparent and accessible.

"But this does not mean that court cases should become a new form of reality TV.

"Any move towards an increased role for the media needs safeguards to protect victims and witnesses."

The civil rights pressure group Liberty also said it did not have issues with the filming of sentences being handed down, but would have concerns over any moves to extend filming further and into trials themselves.

A spokesman said the proposal seemed a plausible way of increasing public understanding and trust in the sentencing system.

"But fair trials are not trials by media, and talent shows and text voting are no substitute for justice."

Many lawyers and civil rights campaigners often refer negatively to US cases like the trial of OJ Simpson in 1994, saying the trial became a media circus.

The trial of Anders Behring Breivik of Norway has also been held up by some as the downside of televising justice.

But Simon Bucks, associate editor of Sky News, argued recently in the Huffington Post: "For Norway, the television coverage of this trial is clearly part of a national catharsis. Norwegians need to understand why Breivik did what he did."

Anders Behring Breivik trial and cameras Some critics claim the televising of the Breivik trial gave his extremist views too much of a platform

Bill Sheaffer, an attorney in Florida, said televising the criminal justice system in the US had been a good thing.

He said: "Since the early 1990s, all 50 states have some form of cameras in court. But there are very rarely any problems. Cameras are stationary and unobtrusive and things are unfolding at a fairly clipped place."

Jurors, children and certain other witnesses - like rape victims or police informants - could not be filmed and mistakes were very rare, he said.

Mr Sheaffer, who works as a legal analyst for the TV station Channel 9, said: "The fear that cameras are going to alter the ability of a defendant to get a fair trial have proved unwarranted. But it's certainly wise for you in Britain to make this change gradually."

Mr Catliff says British trials will never be televised to the same extent they are in the US.

In America, he said, there was "no sense" of sub-judice - the concept that comments should be restricted while a case is being considered by a court, to avoid prejudicing it.

"They have huge speculation before and during trials, but we can't do that in this country because of the Contempt of Court Act," he said.

Mr Sheaffer said: "Freedom of the press is just one of the cornerstones of American democracy, and if the courts are going to err between the rights of the individual and freedom of the press they will go for the latter."

Bill Sheaffer outside court Bill Sheaffer, being interviewed during the Casey Anthony trial last year

He says those who fear televising courts harm a person's chance of a fair trial should take a look at the case of Casey Anthony in Florida last year.

Despite three years of mostly negative press coverage and after a televised trial which gripped America, Anthony was acquitted, much to the surprise of onlookers, of murdering her two-year-old daughter Caylee.

Mr Sheaffer said: "Did the system not work and was she not acquitted?

"The verdict was easier to understand if you followed the gavel-to-gavel coverage rather than if the press had just covered the more sensational aspects of the trial."

Mr Sheaffer also believes televised trials can benefit society.

Last month, neighbourhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was charged with the second-degree murder of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager whose death has stirred up racial tensions in Florida.

Mr Sheaffer says: "In the Zimmerman case you are going to have a very speedy trial and it's going to be very public and out in the open with greater transparency, so that no matter how it comes out no-one will be able to say there was some type of conspiracy."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Perhaps the government's agenda for open justice would be more convincing were they not simultaneously advocating hold some parts of some trials behind closed doors?

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    NO - it could prevent witnesses' willingness to give evidence. It could even affect the way in which juror's behave.
    Keep the cameras out - apart from perhaps sentencing etc. If allowed, how long wil it be before footage of deliberations in the absence of the jury are broadcast?

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Why is the legal establishment so opposed to camera's in courtrooms?
    Is it because they are afraid that the public might finally see how inept most of them are and therefore find it impossible to justify their ridiculous fees?

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Full TV exposure of Crown Court trials might reveal to the public just how BAD the Jury system is, with ignorant jurors,and badly briefed barristers. The public might learn how many trials are decided not on evidence presented but rather on 'points of Law', and how many found Not Guilty actually did the crime but escape on a technicality. In the UK we have LAW, we do not have Justice,

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    I really don't like the idea much. Justice is best served coldly, quietly and unemotionally. TV is good at producing sensational and emotive stuff and likes to deal in feelings rather than facts and logic.

    That is the way to vengeance, not justice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Televising contested cases in Magistrates courts could fund legal aid for the defendant and this could reduce the amount of Crown Court cases that otherwise would occur either because of appeals, or because people know Magistrates assume guilt from the start.
    Magistrates take the appointment because it makes them feel posh, people need to see them operate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Give the idea to Simon Cowell who can then let the public vote for the outcome they want to see? Who needs jurys.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Televised Court proceedings would also allow the public to judge cases on the emotive issues rather than the facts. It must be difficult enough for anyone wrongly accused of any crime as we all know mud sticks, without the national public being able to form their own opinion. However recording trials as a form of transcript would be a good idea as mentioned before it could weed out coruption

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    No 19. Pilgarlic

    It is well established in this country that not only must justice be done, it must also be seen to be done.

    Whether that requires cameras in court is a different question. But either way justice alone isn't the only consideration.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    And we could have celebs introducing the cases, don't forget to press the red button for "guilty" and the green button........well you know what I mean

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    While the broadcasting of trials might be a reality TV step too far, recording of all judicial proceedings of any kind would be an excellent idea. Currently, there is no monitoring of the justice system by anyone outside it. This leaves it open to abuse by corrupt or capricious officials. There's nothing like a watching eye and the threat of accountability to make people behave themselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    It is a criminal offence (contempt) to take a photograph in any court of any person.

    So we now need to change a law for the reason that money can be made from trials. What about the innocent victims? or the witnesses.

    If you have time to watch TV court trials you are wasting your life away, or taking note how to get off your next crime.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I think contested cases in Magistrates Courts need televising. It might finally make Magistrates do their job and not simply rubber stamp people guilty as they walk in.
    They are a green light to corruption and that must change....TV could do it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I cannot see how television in a court room would improve the quality of justice in any way whatsoever. And surely that is the one and only consideration.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Everyone will be surfing for the "Hairy Bikers". Oh God !

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I don't believe it would benefit anyone. Court cases are meant to be private in that the matter only concerns the prosecutor and the defendant with the exception of the public as a jury.

    In making these cases go public the defendant would gain notoriety but, he would become a public target even before the evidence would be presented if it were a case of pedophilia for example.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    The idea that allowing TV broadcasts of courtroom 'drama' would be anything other than "Reality TV" is just nonsense.

    The "Michael Jackson Doctor's Trial" testifies to that. It's insanely cheap drama for TV companies, not in the interests of justice, and a real waste of the public's time.

    The article describes a steep and slippery slope to US style Court TV. It's just plain wrong.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    There was quite a lot of opposition to cameras being introduced in the House of Commons, and the arguments against it seem to be pretty much the same as the arguments against cameras in courts.

    There would only be interest in major cases, which you can already attend in person, or watch a reporter read a transcript outside the courts. Why are people so against any change or modernisation?

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    If I was a witness would I appear on TV, NO, even if I was appearing for impartial evidence I would still not go on TV, this is a very serious matter and not a reality entertainment show. It would make a mockery of the judicial system as it would be open to abuse in that some would use the opportunity to grandstand and ponificate. Lawyers for instance!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    What is wrong with this benighted nation. It gets more batty by the day. I blame global warming.


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