Fears over courts as entertainment

Newspapers feed us a daily diet of courtroom drama which offers intimate details of people‘s lives. Are we turning justice into a form of voyeuristic entertainment. asks

Stephen Naysmith.

Following a series of high profile court cases. concerns are being voiced about the impact of media reporting on ourjustrce system. Particularly at issue are a child's rights to protection. following the identification of a fourteen-year-old girl convicted and subsequently acquitted of a recent ‘quecr

bashing‘ murder in (ilasgow.

ln criminal cases the identity of under- los is ttsually protected. but when Michael l)orau was killed in (ilasgow‘s Queens Park in a homophobic attack last June. the judge decided to lift press reporting restrictions. as he was entitled to do when a child is convicted of either tnurder or a culpable homicide. As a result. the girl was photographed and demonised

in the national press

quashed after an appeal court decided the police had used inappropriate tactics to secure a confession. Judges can pretty much dictate the reporting restrictions in their court ~ or lack of them. However newspapers tend to be quick to challenge any restrictions on their coverage. says Alastair

until the conviction was

\f x.

The media on trial: does court reporting affect the due process of law?

away and telling the jury to ignore the smell.‘

.S‘r'otsmmi news editor Ian Stewart denies court stories are regarded as a cheap way of generating column inches. ‘They are essentially human stories. stories about conthct.‘ he said. ‘People want to know what is wrong. and what the punishment is. We are very careful in looking at civil liberties issues. In certain individual cases it has maybe gone too far. but I think we probably get the balance right.‘

A major concern over court reporting has been that the prosecution's headlinc-grabbing allegations may be given more prominence than detailed rebuttals by defence lawyers. while convictions receive more coverage than acquittals. Stewart concedes this may be true. ‘It is a better news story.‘ he said. ‘But if someone has been held on remand for a long time and the case is then thrown out. we would be onto that like a shot.‘

Bonnington isn‘t so sure. however: ‘lf a newspaper is covering a case and there is art acquittal there will inevitably be less interest. 1 would say they were morally bound to report it.‘

but the press and broadcast media make it worse. she maintains. and the fear of identification could make it harder for the legal sy stem to do its job. ‘The police can expect less public assistance than they did in the past.' said liwart. 'People don't want to get involved. yet the police can be under intense pressure frotn the media to make arrests. which can lead to miscarriages ofjustice such as the (iuildford Four.‘

The tuain justification for allowing reporters into court rooms which all have public galleries is sojustice can be seen. albeit at secondhand. to be done. Ewart doesn‘t accept this argument. citing the Queen's Park case as an example. ‘If the media had been doing their job properly. they would have said there were reservations about the conviction of the girl.‘ she said.

('ameron l-‘y fe. managing partner in the legal firm Ross. Harper and Murphy. accepts that there are concerns about the influence of press coverage in jury trials. 'lf soineone‘s charged with a crime the public tend start off with the presumption in the back oftheir minds that they .re guilty'.‘ l‘yfe explained. ‘As one QC said. it is like putting a skunk m the coutt then taking it

Bonnington. BBC Scotland's legal advisor.

‘\\'hen an lidinburgh doctor was found guilty of poisoning tonic water in an attempt to kill his wife. the judge banned publication of photographs of the wife.‘ lionnington said. ‘lle thought it would identify the daughter. w ho was under si\teen. The newspapers appealed the decision and won a ruling that the judge had gone too far and had no power to do that.‘

With a lierce tabloid circulation war raging between the Scottish Sun and the Hut/y Record. there are concerns that lttrid details ofcourt cases are turning lustice into a form ofcutertaimnent. ‘('ourt cases are a source of easy copy.‘ said Bormington. ‘Pcople are allowed to say pretty virulent things and papers can report those without fear of a delamation action.‘

The Scottish Council for ( 'ivil liberties is worried by w hat it sees as an increasing dependency on court coverage to fill pages. ‘(‘ourt reporting is dead easy and cheap.‘ said S('(‘l. director (‘arole liwart. ‘Too often the media are reporting on court cases rather than getting hard news stories.‘

(iotttg to court is already a humiliating experience.

And finally . . . Wolf fights The Bruce, as star falls to earth

Movie premieres seem to be ten—a- penny in Scotland at the minute so it‘s with an air of ‘here we go again' that we report the gala screening of The Bruce. the ultra-low budget follow-up to the critically unacclaimed ('lntxiug The Deer. The stellar cast in attendance at the (ilasgow ()deon included ()liver Reed. Brian Blessed and. er. l)ee llepburn w hose career has been at something of a crossroads since (it‘r'gm'y‘s (it't‘l.

Sadly that mullet-haired (iladiator. Wolf. who makes his debut as a screen baddie. was unable to attend. Had he done so it's unlikely the muscle man would have been wolling down the traditional pre-sliow Champagne. being something of a teetotaller. ‘I get my high frotn llexing my pecs in the

mirror and congratulating myself on being in such good shape.' he explained.

.-\lso tnaking a screen debut was Romana l)'.>\nntt/.io w ho had been working as a waitress in an lidinburgli coffee bar until she was plucked froru behind the cappuccino machine to present Blue Peter.

Kids T\"s latest recruit landed the

job after an audition which involved

making a (‘hristmas card (raw materials unspecified. though sticky- backed plastic was almost certainly involved) and conducting an interview on a trampoline. ‘l'm thrilled to bits.‘ said the bouncy Rotiiana. w ho is looking forward to a career of painting the names on tortoises and constructing Advent crowns from wire coathangers.

The words ‘crisis' and ‘Scottislt

theatre‘ continued to be spoken iii the same sentence last week. with rumours that a commercial operator Apollo Theatres which runs the Playhouse —- was sniffing around a couple of Edinburgh‘s publicly funded theatres. The flagship Festival Theatre has been touted as a possible target for closure. though there has been a suspicion that this thinking of the unthinkable was a smokescreen to buy time for the more vulnerable King's.

in a .S'cumuun opinion column. Festival Theatre general manager Paul lles stated that Edinburgh's theatres need to sell an extra 3()().()()() seats annually to head off the crisis. but cautioned that any ‘crisis' should be kept in perspective: ‘()ne must not overstate what is still a minority activity; on any evening of the year there are still more people in prison

than in Britain's professional theatres.‘ Interval drinks are rather harder to come by in Saughton. however.

Who knows. maybe divine intervention will solve the problem by removing one of Edinburgh‘s excess theatres from the equation. A runaway Chinese satellite is heading earthwards and threatens to crash—land somewhere in Scotland after breaking out of its orbit. Chinese satellites have a bit of a reputation for breaking down. apparently. and the worry is that this one's parachute won’t open. The satellite. which passes over Scotland five times daily. is expected to arrive sometime today (Thursday) in a bizarre forrn of Russian roulette. Fortunately the Scottish Office is ‘monitoring the situation' there. doesn‘t that make you rest easier? (Eddie Gibb)

The List 8-21 Mar 1996 5