Can televised trials bring order in court?


On February 14th 2013 the world awoke to the news that Reeva Steenkamp – South African model, reality TV star and budding lawyer – had been shot dead by her boyfriend, world-famous athlete Oscar Pistorius. Over a year later, Pistorius has become the defendant in the first ever televised trial in the nation’s history. The scene is set for a media frenzy. Leaving aside the awful nature of Ms Steenkamp’s death, a tragedy regardless of the eventual verdict, this story involving the most high profile couple in South Africa has captivated viewers and readers across the world. Nobody will ever truly know what happened on that night, but many have their theories; Pistorius has been painted as everything from a cold-blooded killer to a terrified and vulnerable man in fear of his life.

The trial itself has been dramatic: a bloodthirsty prosecutor clashing with the accused, who has been regularly sobbing and retching in his seat while the Steenkamp family look on. The entire case has been covered extensively by both television news and social networks, so unsurprisingly everybody has an opinion – the question is whether this level of exposure is a good thing. It is unlikely to affect the outcome of the trial, since South Africa has no jury service, and an experienced judge aided by two assessors is unlikely to be swayed by external influences when deciding upon a verdict. However, it can be suggested that the trial has been useful in airing some of the more unsavoury aspects of South African life – such as racial tensions, high crime rates and domestic violence – which may improve the likelihood of finding solutions. On the other hand, even if Pistorius is acquitted, his reputation will be permanently tarnished.

This raises the question as to whether similar televised trials would be beneficial in the UK; the government has announced plans to make the judicial system more transparent by allowing cameras into courtrooms during legal argument and sentencing remarks. For now, there are no plans to show witnesses or defendants on television. In Scotland – which has a separate legal system to that of England and Wales –  cameras have already recorded Nat Fraser being convicted of the murder of his wife Arlene, later broadcast in 2013 by Channel 4 as a documentary. At first glance, this push for transparency seems to be a good thing. However, televised trials are not the only means to open up the judicial system, education should also play a part. I personally cannot remember any useful legal information from pre-GCSE “Citizenship”, and secondary school students could easily receive at least one lesson with some basic information on the UK’s legal system. One can, in most cases, merely walk into a Magistrates’ Court and watch the proceedings unfold.

The ‘slippery slope’ theory is all too easily wheeled out in moral arguments nowadays, but it may well be applicable here: it is foreseeable that when there is a case of a high enough profile, it will not be too far of a leap for the courts to allow the cameras an insight to the entire proceedings as they have in South Africa. One can envisage tabloids and hashtags already. This will hurt innocent reputations and turn the criminal courts into something to gossip about, akin to the X Factor or Big Brother. Worst of all, it will sway juries. Jurors are firmly ordered to not discuss or research the cases they will be deciding, but they do not live in a vacuum. Trials can last for months on end, and to completely avoid social networking and news outlets for this long is simply implausible. For a juror to make their decision based anything other than the evidence they are presented with in the courtroom would be an affront to the democratic principle of the right to a fair trial.

Finally, the legal system must be open for all to see and understand, as we may all need to rely on it at some point in our lives. The courtroom, with its barristers in old-fashioned wigs and gowns, may well seem antiquated and overly intimidating to some. However, I believe it needs to retain much of this atmosphere for the judicial system to function as it does. High exposure on television would result in over-familiarity with the court, meaning that the room and the judge presiding over it may not receive the great respect which they ought to demand. Respect like this makes our courts the envy of the world, but reducing the criminal court to something of a reality TV show would do much more harm than good.

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