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July 27, 2022updated 07 Oct 2022 7:11am

BBC, ITN, Sky and PA win 20-year fight to broadcast from crown court sentencings

By Charlotte Tobitt

Broadcasters will be allowed to film from crown court sentencing hearings in England and Wales after a campaign lasting around 20 years.

BBC News, ITN, Sky News and PA Media are allowed to film and broadcast, both on TV and online, under a pool system similar to their current set-up at the Court of Appeal. Other news outlets will be given access to their footage through PA while Sky News will host a dedicated Youtube channel for all the hearings recorded.

They will need to ask the judge in each individual case for permission before filming, and will only be able to film the judge as they make their sentencing remarks to protect the privacy of others in the courtroom including victims, witnesses and jurors.

The Ministry of Justice said seeing judges explain their reasoning for sentences would help members of the public better understand their decisions.

The change will allow, where permission is granted, the filming of High Court and Senior Circuit judges, but not more junior judges, sitting in all crown courts across England and Wales.

There will be a ten-second delay to broadcasts to avoid the breach of reporting restrictions or other errors. The Crown will retain copyright for the footage.

The first sentencing to be filmed on Thursday is expected to be at the Old Bailey (pictured) for Ben Oliver, the 25-year-old with autism who admitted the manslaughter of his bedbound grandfather in May. However Judge Munro QC still needs to grant permission.

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BBC News, ITN, Sky News and PA Media all welcomed the change to the law after fighting for almost 20 years to secure the right to film sentencings and, they said, increase transparency and open justice.

The Government indicated it would introduce legislation allowing the filming of judges’ comments in crown courts (as well as the Court of Appeal, which has already come to pass) as far back as 2012.

John Battle, head of legal and compliance at ITV News, Channel 4 News and 5 News producer ITN, and chairman of the Media Lawyers Association, said: “This is a landmark moment for open justice. This reform reflects the public’s right to see justice being done in their courts. It will promote better public understanding of the work of the courts and greater transparency in the justice system.  

Court reporting is vital to democracy and the rule of law and this long overdue change is welcomed.”

Battle told Press Gazette it was a “triumph for media organisations working together to pursue an important open justice objective” and that previous modernisation of the courts, such as journalists being allowed to live tweet or have greater access to documents, had proved “the sky has not fallen down” and reporters “can be trusted”.

Asked if he was concerned about judges potentially withholding permission to film, Battle said the broadcasters “understand and respect that the judge makes the decision on everything within the court” and that “at the same time, from the media perspective, it’s important to recognise that the judges don’t have any role in the final report”.

He said the next step will be lobbying for camera access at the High Court and in inquests “where a coroner is giving a direction on an issue for example, of health and safety or something a matter of public concern.

“So there are further steps that can be taken on this road, but it today is an important day,” he said.

Battle added: “I definitely think in the course of time other parts of the criminal trial could be subject to filming. I think the one thing I’ve learned along this 20-year journey is that you have to take it a step at a time and I think in time it’s inevitable that there will be filming of a full trial. I think that’s highly likely. But not necessarily in the next year.”

John Ryley, head of Sky News, described the law change as a “victory for the viewer”, adding: “Our users and viewers will now be able to see and understand the criminal process and the complexities and constraints under which judges work.”

BBC News interim director Jonathan Munro said: Justice must be seen to be done, so this is a crucial moment for transparency in the justice system – and for our audiences, who will be able to understand the judicial process better by witnessing it for themselves. ”

PA Media will also share the footage for its clients. Head of video Joe Pickover said it was a “crucial milestone” and “audiences across the UK will gain a much better understanding of the criminal process by witnessing the judicial system first hand”.

The filming and broadcasting from courts was given legal grounding, but delayed during the Covid-19 pandemic, under The Crown Court (Recording and Broadcasting) Order 2020 following a pilot that allowed filming, but not broadcasting, of sentencing remarks from eight crown courts.

The filming of certain Court of Appeal cases has been permitted since 2013 when a 1925 law banning image and sound recordings from English courts (with the exception of the Supreme Court) was partially lifted. Selected appeal cases have been streamed on Youtube since 2018, while some Supreme Court hearings are also streamed online.

Sentencing remarks and trials have already been filmed in Scotland, which has a separate legal system from England and Wales.

In some other countries filming from courts is already common, with high-profile cases that saw viewers worldwide gripped to their screens including the Oscar Pistorius murder trial in South Africa and the OJ Simpson murder trial and Johnny Depp versus Amber Heard defamation trial in the US.

Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Burnett of Maldon, said the change was a “very positive step” for open justice: “The law was introduced in 2020 and we all hoped that we would start filming sentencing remarks in high-profile criminal cases in the summer of 2020 and were it not for Covid, that would have happened, but now it is happening.

“I think it’s an exciting development, because it will help the public to understand how and why criminals get the sentences that they do in these very high-profile cases.”

However some barristers have previously warned the courts should not become “an armchair, spectator sport”.

Picture: Tony Baggett/Getty Images

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