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Should court trials in England and Wales be televised?

Should court trials in England and Wales be televised?

Savannah Taylor


Reading time: five minutes

Televising court trials in England and Wales

In England and Wales, televising court trials was never allowed in such a serious institution. But on 28 July 2022 a crown court case was televised for the first time – that of Ben Oliver, who admitted to manslaughter of his elderly grandfather. This change was a result of a campaign by news broadcasters wishing to record the inside of court trials, which led to the law changing in 2020 to allow this. Head of Sky News, John Ryley, stated that this was “a very significant moment for the opening up of our courts”, moving towards greater transparency of the English and Welsh judicial system. 

The new rules

Under the new regime, news broadcasters will be allowed to televise the inside of courtrooms in the crown courts for up to 30 minutes. This means that only serious criminal trials are going to be shown. Not only this, but coverage will be restricted and the only parts allowed to be broadcasted will be the judge handing down a sentence and explaining their reasoning for it. During the 30 minutes of broadcasting time, cameras will be fixed on the judge, with no view of the defendant, jurors, lawyers, victim(s), or witnesses.

Whether this change will be a positive thing for the justice system is a matter of whether TV broadcasters will show respect in the courtroom and how public opinions could change the course of justice.

Why's televising trials a good thing?

At present, the public relies on the reporting of, sometimes unreliable, journalists to understand the process and outcomes of trials. News reporters can be biased on the outcome of trials, and maybe perceive sentences and punishment in a worse light than the judge intended. The media only report what they want and are likely to ‘pick and choose’ what's said by a judge during the sentencing process. Media reporters may not always fully understand the sentencing process, and a televised approach would allow the public to directly witness the balancing factors judges consider when sentencing a case. As Chris Daw states in The Guardian, public opinion must be “built on the truth of what happened in court, rather than a media soundbite.” 

Televising crown court trials in England and Wales is a way to promote the transparency of the justice system with the public, which should in turn boost public confidence, as they'll no longer have to rely on distorted details from journalists. Open justice is crucial so that the public are informed by the truth – this is especially important when it comes to criminal justice policies, and politicians' role in this. The justice system shapes our society, so transparency is needed so that the public can make informed decisions – about how they act and the politicians they vote for in this democratic society.

Many other countries allow court trials to be televised. The US is very open with televising its trials – the Johnny Depp v Amber Heard trial being a prime example of how televising trials can lead to mass coverage. However, despite the mass coverage of the case meaning greater awareness of the justice system, the trial could have been hindered by bias.

LCN blogger Marie Ade also considers televising trials in the UK with this Blog post.

How could televising trials be disruptive?

Televising court trials means that the public can develop opinions about trials. Although it may be good to encourage involvement in the justice system by provoking thoughts about a judge's sentence, televising an ongoing trial could lead to bias. Take the Depp v Heard trial as a prime example of how mass coverage led to heavily divided, strong opinions about both parties. In a trial like that, it could be argued that the jury may have been biased, based on things they might have seen on the news or on social media, as there was daily coverage throughout the six-week trial. The issues of bias are not going to be an issue in England and Wales yet, as only the sentencing is being televised, and only high-profile celebrity cases seem to get the most attention. But it can be argued that this is only the start, and the English and Welsh courts need to remain vigilant and not allow a more lenient televising of trials in the future.

The judiciary in England and Wales was opposed to court cameras being allowed. They feared for:

  • the distress of victims and witnesses;
  • the danger of confidential documents being revealed; and
  • were worried that the serious institution would become a form of theatrical entertainment.

Televising trials comes with the increased possibility of all those things happening, so it's important to monitor how it's televised so the courts can remain in control of the whole trial. This is important to avoid any potential miscarriages of justice and to remain respectful to all members of the courtroom throughout.

What’s the verdict?

In an age of cameras that record everything, the English and Welsh courts were awaiting the day when cameras would be allowed in the courtroom. At present, only the sentencing at the end of the trial can be televised, with the camera set on the judge. This landmark decision aims for greater transparency of the justice system. The public should be able to witness the truth, and not be fed unreliable news stories from equally uninformed journalists.

Legal institutions are typically criticised for being ‘outdated’, due to the embedded traditional values. It was time for them to become more advanced in this modern era of technology.