By John Whittingdale MP - 8th February 2012
John Whittingdale MP says opening the doors of the courts to TV cameras will bring the UK in line with other jurisdictions around the world and be a "positive move for open justice and transparency".
Ken Clarke's announcement last year that the government would like to see the televising of some court proceedings was a welcome, if modest, step forward. However, since then, little more has been said and there has been no real parliamentary debate. The argument is a simple one – opening the doors of the courts to TV cameras will bring the UK in line with other jurisdictions around the world and be a positive move for open justice and transparency. Anyone can sit in a court’s public gallery – if they’re lucky enough to get to the front of the queue, reporters can tweet events live from court, but why should the rest of us have to rely on seeing courtroom incidents by sketches using pencils and crayons?
The current ban has remained in place since 1925, so there must be credible reasons why it hasn’t been lifted before. The main concerns have been that the presence of cameras could lead to grandstanding or unfair treatment of witnesses or jurors. However, the experience of the Supreme Court being livestreamed for the last two years shows us that there has been no effect on the judicial process, and we should remember that witnesses and jurors are not even part of these proposals. In addition, a pilot for cameras in the Court of Appeal in 2005 proved that there was no adverse effect on proceedings.
Now, seven years on from this pilot, there is genuine momentum for change to open up our country’s courtrooms. A cross-broadcaster working group comprising the BBC, ITN and Sky has this week written to the three main party leaders and numerous parliamentarians from both Houses to outline the case for including legislation to overturn the ban in this year’s Queen’s Speech. There has been a series of meetings between the broadcasters, the ministry and subsequently with the judiciary, discussing areas of contention or concern and proposing how televising courts could function in reality. I know that the broadcasters are committed to acting responsibly – their aim is open justice, and a clear protocol will be put in place to ensure that the presiding judge always has complete control over their courtroom. Furthermore, reporting restrictions already exist to protect the administration of justice, and these would apply equally to the broadcasting of court proceedings.
Many of the arguments against allowing the televising of court proceedings are the same ones we heard against the broadcasting of Parliament nearly 30 years ago. Today, no-one would argue that it has not increased understanding of, and interest in our proceedings. It is just as important that we achieve the same outcome for our judicial system. There is no doubt that cases like the recent Stephen Lawrence trial would have received even greater attention had they been broadcast, and with the benefit that the public could have seen justice being finally done.
I hope that the minister will confirm the government's intention to legislate in the next session, as if it is not in the Queen's Speech then realistically, cameras won’t be in courtrooms before the end of this Parliament. This is a reform which has already been delayed too long.
John Whittingdaleis chair of the House of Commons culture, media and sport committee and Conservative MP for Maldon