THE TRIAL FEATURE
bolts of how courts work, but it makes the use of footage from trials of particular public interest (however the term is interpreted) look a long way off.
‘We were not looking for the right to be in court.’ says Catliff, ‘though in the long term my argument is that it is in the courts’ interests to give television reporting rights, as print journalists do. At the moment lawyers don’t trust us and don’t like us so we’ve got to win that trust.’
‘I’m basically in favour of open justice so people can see what’s going on. The courts are really there to satisfy the pubiic’s emotional needs and not the
needs of offenders.’
Armed with the Lord President’s guidelines, Catliff began approachingjudges, witnesses and defendants involved in cases which he reckoned would make good television. Catliff wanted cases with a single accused, fairly straightforward legal arguments and only a handful of key witnesses which he felt would show the natural drama ofevery courtroom. This drama was heightened by using up to four cameras in court. ‘I wanted it to look like a courtroom drama with big, strong close-ups,’ says Catliff.
As it turned out, BBC Scotland nipped in sharpish after the filming guidelines were agreed to film a sheriff court case of a man accused of stealing a bus, shown earlier this year. so The Trial can’t claim it was the ﬁrst to show court proceedings. though it has managed to guard its exclusive on the first High Court trial on television.
So. how significant an achievement is The Trial? Catliff decribes it as a ‘small, but decisive’ step towards opening up the courts to television scrutiny as a matter of course. ‘The real Rubicon to cross is giving television reporting rights,’ he says. Most significantly, the BBC documentary crew showed that its presence would not disrupt court proceedings. with camera operators squeezed into suits and all cables taped neatly out of the way. ‘I think some judges thought we would be running
The Judge: presiding over the first televised High Court trlal
around with clapperboards shouting “Action!”’ says Catliff.
As a piece of ‘how do they do that’ televsion it works brilliantly because it shows something the majority of people have never seen before. It should also shatter some myths about courtrooms that have grown up round LA law or Rumpole of the Bailey. As a piece of social documentary it also succeeds. showing how the courts are often used inappropriately to deal the ‘mad and sad’, as one programme puts it. With 90 per cent of young people who pass through the courts reoffending. it’s hard to argue the system works for them.
‘It shows a tremendously heavy handed approach to some relatively minor offences,’ says Drummond Hunter. director of penal reform campaign Howard League. ‘l’m basically in favour ofopen justice so people can see what’s going on. The courts are really there to satisfy the public’s emotional needs and not the needs of offenders.’
The biggest concern among lawyers The List spoke to was not the presence of cameras in court, but the way the resulting recordings were edited. ‘1 can’t see anything wrong with the public seeing what goes on in court as long as programmes give a balanced view of proceedings,’ says David Pirrett. convener ofthe Law Society of Scotland’s criminal law committee. Pirrett believes news cameras in courts are inevitable in the long run. but George More is not so sure. ‘l can't imagine journalists being fair in the way they do it,’ he says. ‘How can you do justice to a case in a three minute news bulletin?’
Television stands accused of possession of the power to undermine ourjudicial system. Those worried that tabloid news values will eventually erode the balance of television’s legal coverage if cameras are given the run of the courts, will regard The Trial as the thin end of the wedge. in its defence. broadcasters will argue that
television’s power is positive; showing criminal trials informs the public and should be a first step towards modernising the legal system. Both sides may be simultaneously right. The jury is still out. D
The Trial begins on BBC 2 on Friday 18 November at 9pm.
0..l. Fever: the book of the trial of the decade
When the question of televising courtroom proceedings is raised, the American system - with its associations of hype and media circus - is often cited by those against the idea as being an adequate reason for Britain not following suit. However, Fenton Bailey, producer of The Media Trial of OJ. Simpson - a recent Late Show special about the carnival atmosphere surrounding America’s latest celebrity murder show - reasons that the presence of cameras in ' the courtroom isn’t the problem.
‘Cameras inside the courtroom show people how justice works,’ Bailey explains. ‘lt’s the cameras outside that hype things and turn them into spectacle. Maybe that’s a bit disingenuous because if there weren’t cameras inside, then there perhaps wouldn’t be the same level of interest in the case - but so what that there’s all this hype. It doesn’t have any effect on the outcome of the trial. What’s going on inside the courtroom is completely different.’
But isn’t there a danger that those involved in a trial, be they witness, solicitor or judge, may play to the camera In such a situation, distortln proceedings? '
‘A solicitor would be foolish to pitch the case to the TV audience,’ reckons Bailey, ‘when at the end of the day, It’s the jury who’re going to decide. Until we do away with the jury, and have some sort of virtual jury watching TV, it’s always going to be that way. While someone may play up to the camera, it’s only going to be up to and not beyond the point where it’ll harm their case in the jury’s eyes.
‘Cameras in the courtroom puteveryone on notice that they’d better behave. A system where you don’t have them doesn’t mean justice'gets done - there are a zillion instances of that, and it’s perhaps because judges are protected from public scrutiny that they can rule on whim, and do whatever they want. letting people watch how a courtroom works doesn’t affect how a trial is determined. If anything, it shows that justice doesn’t always work, isn’t this absolute, perfect process, but rather, a kind of subjective theatre.’ (Damien love)
The List l8 November—l December l99413