The new director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, has come out in support of allowing television cameras into courts in England and Wales for the first time.
In a wide-ranging briefing to journalists on Friday – his first major speech since he took up the post in November – the head of the Crown Prosecution Service said more openness would bring “a breath of fresh air” to the criminal court system.
Speaking to Radio 4’s PM programme after the briefing, Starmer said: “My approach is that the criminal justice system should be as open and transparent as possible.
“That applies to everything that we do in the Crown Prosecution Service and therefore, as a matter of principle, I think that court proceedings should be as open and transparent as possible and I wouldn’t in principle oppose the use of cameras in court.”
He added: “There would have to be limits in sensitive cases. But, in principle, I’d be in favour.”
Photographers have been banned from the courts since 1925 – when ignoring the law was punishable by a fine “not exceeding fifty pounds”.
Section 41 of the 1925 Criminal Justice Act reads: “No person shall take or attempt to take in any court any photograph, or with a view to publication make or attempt to make in any court any portrait or sketch, of any person.”
In August 2004, Lord Falconer announced a six-week pilot scheme to film a small number of appeal court hearings at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. The Lord Chancellor said the time was “ripe for a debate” over the filming the courts in England and Wales.
The video footage gathered during the trial was never broadcast – but was used to create mock news packages demonstrating to the judiciary what effect televising proceedings would have.
Despite lobbying from all the major broadcasters for an announcement to be made, the Ministry of Justice has still yet to make any further progress after more than four years.
ITN‘s head of compliance and in-house legal expert John Battle said the pilot scheme in 2004 had demonstrated that “the sky did not fall down” when broadcasters were allowed to televise court proceedings.
“I think it showed to the courts and to the Department for Constitutional Affairs [now the Ministry of Justice] that the broadcasters acted in a responsible and proper manner,” he told Channel 4 News on Friday.
“It didn’t disrupt proceedings, lawyers didn’t play to the cameras and the courts continued in their own way.”
Mark Stephens, head of media law at Finers Stephens Innocent, said letting cameras record court proceedings was “the appropriate way forward” and would “educate and inform the public about what’s being done in their name”.
Video footage would also be a considerable improvement on the “rather pathetic drawings” of the courtroom and “snatched pictures in the street” that broadcasters currently use to accompany court reports, he added.
“We must remember that many Commonwealth countries which have the same law as us also have cameras in their courtrooms. We are, if you like, in a minority in this country in not having that,” Stephens told Radio 4’s PM programme.
“There’s no reason really why we shouldn’t have it as a matter of principle. I think the likelihood of change is quite high.”
He added that it was important that a code of conduct was in place, detailing which camera angles could be used to ensure that the jurors are not in shot.
“Most people throw up their hands and think OJ Simpson,” Stephens said – pointing to the media circus that surrounded the American football player’s televised murder trial in 1995.
“But the chief justice of California after that particular debacle undertook some research and he found that among his own judiciary those who hadn’t had cameras in their courts opposed it, but those that had did actually find it to be perfectly good and very helpful.”
Cameras have been allowed into Scottish courts since 1992, with certain restrictions drawn up by then head of the Scottish judiciary, Lord Hope.
In England, broadcasters including Sky News have attempted to get around the broadcasting ban. During the Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly – the source for a BBC story on Iraq’s weapons – Sky News used actors to reconstruct the proceedings, based on the official court transcript.