Televised Court Proceedings: Too Much or Just Enough?

By Niamh Marley

In recent weeks, pictures from the murder trial of South African athlete Oscar Pistorius have been beamed into living rooms across the globe.

Before Judge Thokozile Masipa dismissed the trial for Easter recess, the world watched on as state prosecutor Gerrie Nel incessantly questioned Pistorius about the events of the night when he shot dead his law graduate girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. At times, one had to be reminded that Nel is not launching a personal attack; he is ensuring the wheels of justice keep turning smoothly. The accused exercised his right not to have his face shown on televised proceedings, so viewers, for want of a better word, relied on the audio of Pistorius’ responses. Distress within his voice was manifest, as he sobbed and at times became barely comprehendible. It was difficult not to have some degree of emotion stirred within whilst listening to his testimony, whether it is some sort of sympathy or anger at the dramatic display.

Oscar Pistorius appears at pre trial hearing in Pretoria- photo credit: http://www.vocfm.co.za

As well as raising pertinent issues surrounding violence against women and gun laws in South Africa, the Pistorius trial has asked uncomfortable questions about whether or not court proceedings should be televised. In America, it is commonplace but the rest of the world is playing catch up. In October 2013, the British Supreme Court allowed cameras in for the first time, in a groundbreaking partial relaxation of a long-standing law. Crown and Magistrate courts are exempt from this moderation.

There is something distressingly voyeuristic about watching criminal trials in particular on television. UK law relies heavily on the maxim that justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done, thus most court hearings are open to the public gallery. Social media and shows like Big Brother have given us an unfortunate tendency to believe that we have some sort of divine right to know everything about everything. The fact is, we don’t. If Reeva Steenkamp were alive and able to recount the events of the night in question, would we then be inclined to switch off? This is not a courtroom drama, with actors donning curly white wigs – this is real life. The salacious details that we pore over are not the creation of a talented writer: they are facts. If we do not care enough to take ourselves down to the public gallery of a courtroom, does that then rescind our right to watch it all unfold on the gogglebox?

The judiciary must tread very carefully here – a lackadaisical attitude to broadcasting court proceedings could damage the integrity and sanctity of the scales of justice beyond repair. Crucially, it may also discourage victims and survivors of crime from coming forward, for fear of their ordeal being broadcast to the world. Of course the general public have a right to know how their taxes are being spent to fund the judicial system – that goes without saying. But that is not the same as saying everyone has a right to see what goes on behind closed doors. Any additional relaxation of broadcasting laws needs to be carried out after a period of intricate consultation and there must be safeguards in place to protect those who summon the bravery to testify. Anything less could lead to a categorical disaster.

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