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May 8, 2024

Broadcasting from UK courts: ‘Highly selective and limited use’

Some 33 cases were filmed but most were not used by broadcasters.

By Various Authors

By Tom Smith, Sally Reardon, Marcus Keppel-Palmer, Bernhard Gross, academics from the University of the West of England.

In her recent speech to the Society of Editors Conference, Lady Chief Justice Baroness Carr announced a new Board for Open Justice; as part of this, she stated that the broadcasting of courts should have a “careful” expansion, making it clear that the judiciary see this as a central plank towards greater transparency and accountability.

However, after over a year of filming and broadcasting sentencing remarks in the Crown Court, there has been no published evaluation of televised court proceedings, its benefits accepted at face value. Has there been any added value to the principle of open justice?

To this end, a team of researchers from the University of the West of England examined the first 12 months of televised sentencing from the first case in July 2022 (R v Oliver) through July 2023, reviewing the types of cases televised and how they were used by the broadcast media.

We conclude that, notwithstanding the theoretical benefits for open justice, broadcasting as is offers only a narrow view of criminal courts and does not necessarily represent the great leap forward for open justice trumpeted by some ministers and commentators.

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Only one request to broadcast rejected in first year of project

In the first year, only 33 cases were filmed and potentially broadcast – all being uploaded to the Sky News – Courts Youtube channel as the ultimate repository.

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This is a small proportion of all cases decided in the Crown Court during that period. And it wasn’t because the courts refused permission. In fact, a Freedom of Information request revealed that broadcast media made very few (34) requests to broadcast, despite the thousands that would have been eligible, with only one rejected.

This suggests an extremely selective approach, reflecting the traditional reality of open justice in physical courts where thousands of cases are generally invisible beyond the court room itself.

Much like traditional media coverage, broadcast cases tended to involve extreme seriousness and violence. Two thirds of offences sentenced were homicides; yet these represent a fraction of overall crime.

Victims were also mainly the young or the elderly, more vulnerable groups. The potential scope of broadcasting as a means of expanding and developing open justice is, in the current context, inherently limited and skewed towards traditional news values.

One of the stated purposes was that members of the public should understand more about the criminal process. However, filming could only cover sentencing, with most of the processes that constitute criminal justice were omitted; and only broadcast from the Crown Court, therefore excluding most criminal proceedings – which are determined in Magistrates’ Courts.

In this sense, broadcasting does little to truly extend open justice beyond its traditional parameters. The picture provided of crime and, specifically, sentencing is one of extreme seriousness and – generally – lifelong imprisonment. There were several common types of significant criminal behaviour that either did not or rarely featured, including intimate partner violence; theft and property offences; common and sexual assault; white collar crimes (such as fraud); and possession and supply of illegal drugs. This invisible swathe of crime – and the processes relating to them – continues to be largely ignored.

Did broadcasters tire of ‘static camera fixed just on the judge’?

Of the 33 cases filmed, how much footage was actually used made of the footage beyond upload to the Youtube repository? We examined the use in major news bulletins on the relevant day of sentencing.

Over half of the cases filmed were not used in any TV news bulletin and of the rest only eight were excerpted on all the major TV news bulletins.

We don’t know why there was so little use made by broadcast media after having decided to film cases. It may be that like a new toy, broadcasters tired of the static camera fixed just on the judge.

Of those that made it to the main bulletin, most were in the first few months of the period reviewed, indicating a drop off in interest by broadcasters.

When excerpts from sentencing were used in the main bulletins, these tended to be short clips (30 seconds or fewer) which would not achieve the stated aim of allowing the public to see the greater context behind sentencing – the actual length of sentencing remarks made by the judge varied between ten and 55 minutes. Considering the 14 hours of footage recorded, these findings suggest highly selective and limited use.

Despite the introduction of a novel visual and substantial aspect to potential reporting of criminal proceedings, the media have remained focused on the same traditional approach: that is, use of very short clips; focus on key soundbites; and a preference for more ‘exciting’ visual content (e.g. police bodycam footage).

Clips tended to make use of graphic descriptions of case facts, such as the physical actions involved (which were often violent in nature), and characteristics of the defendant or victim. Much of the footage featured ‘quotable’ emotive language and phrases used by judges.

‘We might legitimately ask – has anything meaningful been achieved?’

We also measured the views and likes on Youtube of the full filmed sentences. Only two of the Youtube videos had received more than 100,000 views during the period (and there is no evidence that those views were of the full video). The majority received between 20,000 to 35,000 views. It needs to be asked whether this is really the expansion of open justice trumpeted by the minister?

In relation to the stated goals of increasing understanding, transparency, and confidence, we might legitimately ask – has anything meaningful been achieved?

In terms of understanding crime, the public have been shown nothing new; the true nature of crime and the courts remains – largely – hidden. Understanding and transparency of sentencing has, arguably, been increased to a limited extent.

Clearly, the visual and verbal content provided by broadcasting the sentencing does, in theory, reveal a previously invisible process; and (again, in theory) the broadcasts are directly available to the public, allowing them to extend their understanding without mediation.

However, this is limited by the selection process discussed above; and, of course, the broadcasts show nothing beyond the narrow window into a small part of the criminal process.

Cases selected for broadcast were, broadly, like those reported via other traditional methods. As such, we might argue that broadcasting of sentencing, as a new presentation of open justice, is arguably no different in terms of the types of cases covered by the media and has done little to extend public understanding.

When expansion of broadcasting occurs – which seems inevitable based on Baroness Carr’s comments – it must represent more than a new medium for the same coverage; it must be a meaningful change that genuinely extends open justice.

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