Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Why do I feel uneasy about cameras covering court sentencing?

It's been decided that the sentencing of Suzanne Pilley's murderer, David Gilroy, will be filmed and the footage released to the media in the interests of openness and transparency.

This is something that's been welcomed by Willie Rennie, who said:

“By televising this, people like Gilroy, who have been found guilty of such a shocking crime, will face a day of reckoning. The public will be able to see justice being done.”
I kind of see his point, but I also feel very uneasy about it and I'm not sure why.

We would know what the Judge said to him, because it would be reported verbatim in the press, immediately, so there is already that element of transparency there.

I guess to see Lord Bracadale actually saying the words would make it a lot more real, but it seems a bit intrusive, nonetheless. He will doubtless outline to Gilroy the heinousness of his crime, exacerbated by his refusal to say where he buried Suzanne before telling him how long he'll serve. I'm not sure how Suzanne's friends and family would feel about that, though, and what would happen in future cases. Every case is different and every family reacts in a different way.

I was wondering if I was just being a luddite and I've always been caustic about establishment types who complained about the televising, or You Tubing, of Parliamentary proceedings. I certainly wouldn't want to count myself in with the people who objected to the Queen's coronation being televised because men would watch it in public houses with their hats on. This is different, though. Every single crime has a very personal consequence for somebody. In this case it involves bereavement and loss and the ending of a young life. A national celebration, or a Parliamentary Debate are not the same thing.

I know that the camera will only show the Judge's face and not the accused, or the public. Is this the start of a slippery slope which will end up with Scottish Courts being televised like American ones where murder cases are dramatically sensationalised? I'm not so sure it's that healthy to watch a murder trial on tv like the OJ Simpson trial, just to see what happens. It feels disrespectful to the victims and I think some distance is warranted. Also, I don't think I'd really want to see somebody in great distress giving evidence about a crime they'd witnessed or experienced.

Maybe my unease is partly because the justice system does have to stay extremely rational to work. Bringing emotion into it with tv cameras brings inconsistency which could render it unjust.

I certainly don't think that this development is the end of the world and I know that we are relatively unusual in  having such wide ranging reporting restrictions on court cases. Compare and contrast with Italy, though, where Amanda Knox was made out pretty much to be the bride of Satan ahead of her trial. How do you find an unbiased jury in these circumstances?

I may be conflating different issues here, but I just don't think that this is something we should necessarily welcome with open arms. For a justice system to work, people need to have confidence in it. I'm not sure that  filming a judge give a sentence actually adds to that when we can all read his judgement in full when it's released.


Andrew said...

I'm in completely agreement with you on this Caron, largely for the reasons you give. I understand Willie Rennie's point, but the truth is that there is no need for such a change and far better ways of ensuring public faith in the judicial system than bringing TV cameras into court.

Not only is is disrespectful to the public, it also poses questions about the "fairness" of a trial. And where do you stop? Just the high profile cases in which the public have an understandable interest (and which suggests alternative motivations to the promotion of transparency)? Or every case to come in front of a judge or sheriff?

The real questions are these: what is the purpose of televising? will it serve the interests of justice? are there ways in which the delivery of justice might be undermined by this?

A good piece, Caron. Thank you for highlighting this!

Keith Legg said...

For once, Caron, I disagree with you!

Firstly, I would be very reluctant to support wholescale televising of courts. There is a real danger that it can descend to showboating on the part of QCs - though some would say that this happens anyway - but also would be a significant shift away from the current position of reporting restrictions which we have in Scotland, for which there seems to be little clamour even within the media.

The Supreme Court, however, is routinely televised from London - it's the only court in the UK with permanently fitted cameras.

However, the televising of sentencing is something different. Firstly, it can only be done with the consent of all involved - so in this case, the defence team have clearly agreed to it. Secondly, it's only the judge who speaks - so there's no influencing of decision making, and no showboating from lawyers. Finally, actually showing the judge would have more impact I think than a talking head outside the court in getting across the seriousness of the sentencing.

Stuart Smith said...

Cameras have been allowed in Scottish Courts since 1992, provided that all concerned consent to being filmed. I believe there have been a few cases where filming has already taken place - for documentary purposes.


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