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This blog will look at where the UK stands with televising trials and the pros and cons of broadcasting court proceedings. It's inspired by the recent US-based defamation trial of Depp v Heard, which was televised and viewed by millions of people over a six-week period. There were hours of footage uploaded on YouTube daily, with catchy titles and images that highlighted certain parts of the trial.
Although a high level of public engagement may be expected in high-profile cases, the wide use of social media has brought international attention to the case, spanning all age groups. You may have seen clips, edits, reenactments, memes, and commentary videos on this trial across different social media platforms.
Are trials televised in the UK?
In the Supreme Court, filming of the sentencing has been permitted since 2009. In the Court of Appeal, certain cases have been allowed to be filmed since 2013. Scottish Courts have allowed filming since 1992, but it is rare (first filming of a sentence in Scotland was in 2012) and restricted to certain conditions and permissions.
The recent Crown Court (Recording and Broadcasting) Order 2020 has allowed serious and high-profile criminal cases in the Crown Courts of England and Wales to be televised, such as that involving murder, sexual offences, and terrorism (available to the public via television or an online platform). The sentencing can be broadcasted live, but with a slight delay (around 10 seconds) to account for any errors or disturbance. However, only the judge’s sentencing remarks can be broadcasted and not the trial itself (ie, presenting evidence, witness testimonies, the lawyers’ remarks). This is to prevent deterring the witnesses, victims, and jurors from partaking in the trial and to avoid influencing them.
The judge’s sentence involves reasoning as to why they've interpreted the law in a certain way to reach a particular conclusion. It would therefore offer the public an insight about the restrictions of law that judges have to work with whilst justifying their decision based on facts and evidence. However, the Bar Council of England and Wales has suggested that televising only the sentencing prevents the public from appreciating the full extent of the evidence and the arguments that were presented.
Should trials be televised?
Offers transparency, which is vital to justice and in improving public confidence in the country’s legal system.
Improves public understanding of the law.
Assists in ensuring the law is respected by showing that crimes are justly punished; it therefore may deter crime.
Allows courts to be more accessible, especially in high-profile cases where, due to geographical constraints and limited space, people cannot physically go inside the court .
Although parties are expected to act properly, televising trials could encourage the participants to act more professionally and consider the impact of their actions more carefully.
Publicising the judges’ faces may lead to personal attacks or blaming, especially if the decision is unpopular. If the trials themselves are to be filmed, then this issue can be extended to everyone else involved, including the lawyers, jurors, witnesses, experts, etc.
Filming trials in its entirety, as one might have seen in Depp v Heard, may lead to sensationalising; it may diminish the trial to a mere spectacle for entertainment and content. The current wide use of social media can contribute to such a result.
It may jeopardise the fairness of the trial, as public opinion/pressure, or the potential response of the public, may influence the jurors’ opinion. It may also discourage witnesses coming forward, for example in fear of humiliation or in having their privacy invaded.
People involved may act differently when being filmed - they may be more nervous, or act in a way they would not normally do.
The trial process may take a long time, sometimes spanning years, especially if parties appeal. The public may not follow the full process and reach a conclusion when the case has not been finalised.
Whether trials should be televised involves a difficult balancing exercise between public interest and ensuring a fair trial and protecting the parties involved. It seems that the UK, in balancing the reasons for and against, has concluded that only the judge’s sentencing remarks should be televised. As seen by how filming permissions have changed over the last few decades, televising trials will likely be a topic of further discussion, especially as more and more things become digitalised.
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