THE BLOG

Televising High Profile Cases Would Be to Everyone's Benefit

04/03/2014 09:47 GMT | Updated 03/05/2014 10:59 BST

The buzz around the water cooler yesterday was almost certain to be about Sunday night's Oscars ceremony, where 12 Years a Slave picked up the gong for Best Picture. Over the coming days, however, the discussion is likely to turn to another Oscar. Oscar Pistorius's trial for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp will be the first ever to be filmed and broadcast publicly in South Africa. The Court's decision to allow parts of the trial to be televised has come as a response to concerns that rich and poor, famous and obscure are treated differently by the justice system.

What fascinates us about the Pistorius trial is not just the facts and suppositions of the trial itself, but the broader issues around the relationship between fame, wealth and justice in the context of post-apartheid South Africa, and the ability of the legal system to cope with the tension inherent in those issues.

Why is it that in Britain our criminal courts remain untelevised? Why is it that high profile cases - like the current phone hacking trials in the Old Bailey, which has huge repercussions for our democracy and will be closely followed around the world - can only be conveyed to us as second-hand information?

Court proceedings in this country have long been open to members of the public, but galleries tend to be dominated by journalists and activists - those who have both the time and professional inclination to attend trials in person. But most of us have to rely on those journalists and campaigners for their version of events of what happens inside what is now the most obscure branch of the State.

Transparency is - slowly - becoming the default for public institutions. Television cameras first entered the House of Commons almost 25 years ago, preceded by radio broadcasts 15 years earlier. The Freedom of Information process has given the public access to civil service advice. Local authorities must now publish big ticket items of spending. Even GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 have now appeared together in front of televised Parliamentary committees.

With the courts, small steps are being made in the right direction. The inquest into the death of Mark Duggan, the man who was by shot armed police officers in the run-up to the 2011 London riots, was scheduled to be streamed with a short time delay, though plans were dropped at the last minute. On days I attended, the public gallery was full and an 'overspill court' was used throughout the inquest. People do not want to rely on a picture, drawn from memory by a court artist, and the interpretation of the reporters in the court. They want to see for themselves how the case is being handled.

Some argue that televising the courts risks creating celebrity criminals and publicity hungry lawyers. As a former barrister, I can assure them that these fears are misplaced - most barristers already play to the gallery. The issue is whether people can see for themselves how and whether justice is being done. This matters not just for cases like the Pistorius trial and the Duggan inquest, where mistrust in the judicial system must be addressed. It is also important on issues such as phone hacking and white collar crime, where the public needs to see the rich and powerful being held to the same standards as everyone else.

Our legal system can evolve without compromising justice. Of course the government should be careful not to push this too far or too fast, so that vulnerable victims, for example, are not thrust into the spotlight when they do not wish to be. But steadily, much more of the judicial system should be opened up to proper public scrutiny.

Britain has a justice system to be proud of; one that forms a model copied by states around the globe. Yet fear of crime in the UK is still far greater than the reality, and many believe that the law is not applied equally. Allowing more people to see justice in action would be to everyone's benefit.