Should court proceedings be televised?

Today, a paralegal named Jessica Bass looks at implications of televising court proceedings.

On Valentine’s Day 2013, Oscar Pistorius, Olympic and Paralympic athlete, shot dead his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp at the home they shared together in Pretoria, South Africa. Pistorius claims to have mistaken her for an intruder, and pleaded not guilty to her murder. Today marks the start of his 3 week trial. For the first time in South Africa, parts of the trial are being televised live.

This begs the question, is televising court proceedings emphasising the right of the public to be aware of how the government is dealing with suspected criminals, or rather fuelling the media sensationalism around this trial?

A partial lifting of the long standing ban on cameras in the UK courts has seen filming at the Court of Appeal allowed. Legal arguments and comments from the Judge have been broadcast, however defendants, witnesses and victims have not been shown. In South Africa, those wishing to watch Pistorius’s murder trial can do so, with a dedicated 24 hour channel showing both the court and commentary available. Video will not be allowed of Pistorius, or his defence witnesses, however an audio feed of the proceedings will be permitted throughout the trial, unless witnesses object up to 24 hours in advance. The trial is to be filmed by three cameras, which can be turned off at any time by the Judge.

There are those who object to this, seeing televised trials as a way of diluting the dignity of the court. There is a risk that the attention of lawyers and judges will be drawn from where it is truly needed, the case, and focussing more on their TV appearance. There is further the argument that even if found not guilty, particularly those of fame such as Pistorius, will suffer even further irreparable damage to their reputation. The broadcasting of such trials will do little to assist a defendant found not guilty from shirking the label of their previous charge.

On the other side, being able to watch such trials will give the public a better understanding of the judicial process, away from what is presented by TV dramas. In particular, given doubts regarding the reliability of the South African legal system, broadcasting the Pistorius trial may mean the public are more inclined to trust the integrity and fairness of trials, if able to briefly experience this for themselves.

Ultimately, people have the right to turn up to court to view proceedings, however this is clearly not practical for the majority. The media here provides a way for the public to get a true glimpse into proceedings in what is seemingly the least unobtrusive way possible.