Televised Trials are only a matter of time

The Times today reports the differences of emphasis between Lord Newburger Lord Dyson and the Lord Chief Justice about the future of televising the courts. The impetus for the continuing debate, of course, is the conviction of Oscar Pistorius.

Let me declare again my change of heart. In the days of the committee of Jonathan Caplan QC, I argued strongly against televising the courts. I did not trust the broadcasters to understand and to edit: I feared for the vulnerability of witnesses and I suppose my friends would have stressed that I might have been under the theatrical temptation to grandstand myself.

Today I have all the enthusiasm of a convert and think that it can only be a matter of time before we have comprehensive and sensible coverage of a wide range of criminal cases. But of course we must still retain protection for the identity of vulnerable witnesses and jurors.

Why the change? First the superb Parliamentary coverage on television with very few complaints. Broadcasters have learnt to manage the intricacies of Parliamentary procedure and evolved excellent technical coverage. Why should they not be trusted to master our own procedural requirements, aged perhaps by barristers seconded for the purpose? Then I am struck by the high degree of information about the South African judicial system which has emerged naturally from the coverage of this Pistorius case. Plainly there was discussion to protect the defendant at times from visual scrutiny and that seems to me to be entirely fair. It was one of the most high profile cases in the world in recent years and entirely right that we should able to follow the process.

Most of all, I feel that we have taken huge strides in communication in the last five years and the courts cannot be exempt from it. The citizen, if he wishes, can offer his views to the world and a short video in support on every subject under the sun. Our children are used to digital communication from a very early age. I do not think that lawyers will exploit the medium, for television is particularly good in highlighting fakery. Indeed I would go further: we need to extend the possibility of broadcasting into virtually all courts, tribunals, planning enquiries and other quasi-judicial forums.

So look ahead five more years. Much of the deBate will have become academic. There will be short summaries of local and national cases each night. The public will have a far better understanding of the difficulties of sentencing and the reputation of the system may well be enhanced. Advocates doing their job properly and being seen to do so. Now, who says the days of a true legal meritocracy are over?

Nigel Pascoe QC

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