16 May 2011

Televising the Supreme Court: one small step towards a giant leap?

Today's news that live footage from the Supreme Court can be seen on Sky News is a major step forward that's attracted less media attention than it deserves.

I've always been baffled by the fact that, although a crucial feature of our legal system is that court hearings should be open to the public, they're only open to the few who are able to get a seat in the public gallery.

The case for banning television from courts fell apart years ago
The prohibition on recording (whether audio or video) court hearings originates from the much older ban on taking still photographs in courts - which was originally introduced because indoor photography used to require the use of flash powder. In those early days, it was rightly feared that this would be a major distraction to the ongoing proceedings.

But the rules were never updated when photographic technology had developed to the point where fast film made it easy to take quality pictures in low light. Nor were they updated when television and video technology no longer needed elaborate and potentially distracting lighting systems.

So we're still lumbered with the situation of having to rely on journalists' inevitably partial reports of court proceedings, while being prevented from witnessing them ourselves (unless we happen to be able get there and find a seat).

A needless constraint on research
Leaving aside the general question of why the wider public has been needlessly excluded from court hearings for so long, the prohibition on recording court hearings has also seriously hindered the development of research into the workings of courtroom language in Britain. My own work on public speaking was originally a by-product of studies of verbal interaction in courts that were originally done at the Oxford Centre for Socio-Legal Studies more than 30 years ago - some of which was published a book I wrote with Paul Drew (Order in Court: the organization of verbal interaction in judicial settings, London: Macmillan Press, 1979).

At that time, the only tape-recordings we could get hold of came from American colleagues, who had no trouble at all in collecting huge amounts of such data and were generous in making them available to some of us in the UK.

As for our own courts, we might have been able to see a few transcripts now and then, but that was the best you could hope for, unless you could find a judge who was also willing to break the rules in the interests of science.

In fact, the main reason I started looking at political speeches in the first place was that it was so easy to collect recordings from radio and television (for more on which, see HERE) and audible signs of approval like clapping and cheering made it possible to identify what actually turned audiences on.

A new beginning?
So we should not only welcome the initiative announced today by Sky News, but hope that televising will not stop short at the Supreme Court and will soon be extended to lower courts as well. Until that happens, the claim that our courts are open to the public may be true in principle, but it remains rather far removed from reality in practice.

P.S.
After posting this, I heard via Twitter from Jamie Wood (@JFDWood), a Sky News executive producer, that this is indeed the first step in a campaign for the restrictions on cameras in our courts to be lifted, for more on which see HERE.

2 comments:

Roger said...

I couldn't disagree more.

Sure if we lived in rather more perfect world all public business would be broadcast everywhere.

But this is a radically imperfect world where the main interest of Sky and other media organisations in this is purely financial.

They see courtroom drama as a potentially very lucrative and from their point of view effectively free to produce form of reality TV.

Max Atkinson said...

Roger - you no doubt have a point about Sky having dubious financial motives, but my point is that things that are supposed to be open to the public at large should actually be open to the public at large. Similar technologically obsolete reasons to those used for prohibiting the broadcast of court proceedings were also deployed to prevent us from seeing and hearing parliamentary proceedings for many a long year. Or do you think we should put the clock back on that?

I'll admit that there would be risks involved, especially in the digital age. But it shouldn't be beyond the wit of legislators to give courts the right to exclude cameras and microphones for specified reasons in particular cases.