I’ve just attended the University of Manchester Foundation Lecture, give by Clive Anderson:’is it time to have TV cameras in courts?’ (I’ll admit that my attendance was prompted more by the speaker than the subject). As expected, it was an interesting and amusing lecture, with Clive giving examples of how slow the English legal system is to adapt to change. Barristers, apparently, wear black as they are still in mourning for the death of Queen Anne. In 1714.
Clive mentioned the state of televisation in other countries, some memorable cases that have been televised, and mourned the missed opportunities of English cases past – alas, if you weren’t there in person, you’ll never get to see Jeffrey Archer squirming in the dock.
The crux of Clive’s argument was this: that what happens in a court room is a public matter, happening in a public place, and the public should be able to witness it. They should be able to see and hear the testimony, observe body language and hesitations, make up their own minds about veracity. And not just the current public – recordings of cases will allow future generations to study and observe. They would be invaluable for historians, for lawyers and students of the law, for anyone who is interested in the individual cases or the workings of the law as a whole. He mentioned the footage of the Nuremberg trials – considered non-too-important at the time, but now hugely valuable.
Questions from the audience mainly revolved around the ‘TV’ aspect. Would televising courts glamourise criminals? Would it further upset already nervous witnesses? Who would gain the advertising revenue? Would we see X-factor style ‘guilty or not?’ phone-ins? And how do you decide which cases are to be televised? How do you protect the vulnerable? One person mentioned that televising cases in New Zealand requires complex procedures that have to be agreed to by all participants before the trial begins, which can severely delay proceedings.
The question which the librarian/archivist in me was jumping up and down to ask (the actual me raised her hand politely and didn’t persist when passed over): what about the distinction between recording and broadcast? (The title of the lecture was specifically ‘TV cameras’, which indicates an emphasis on broadcast, but could have just been a shorthand for ‘video cameras’.) It’s not just broadcast that’s currently prohibited in English courts, but recording. Why not cut through the questions of which and who and how and who agrees, and just record them all?
Make recording cases the default. Give them all to The National Archives. Have them catalogued, tagged, and preserved. Keep them safe for future need, enquiry, or research. Make the recordings subject to the same data protection legislation as any other personal archive material. Then decide which (if any) are to be broadcast. If all parties agree, they can sign a data protection waiver, and Court TV, here we come.
If they don’t agree? Well, limited access could be granted on an individual basis – for instance, lawyers preparing appeals could be granted access to footage of the original trial. But the material would be there to access. We have the technology and the capacity to keep a recording of all trial proceedings – not a stenographers’s interpretation, not an artists’s impression drawn outside the court in swirly pastels, but an actual real copy of ‘this is what happened’. Won’t future generations be amazed we didn’t?
I know the ‘keep it all and decide what’s important later’ approach has archivists tearing their hair out. But storage is cheap, and loss of record, of information, of memory is potentially catastrophic. So I’m advocating for recording, for storing; for the rise of a breed of law/media librarian/archivists. We’re one of the professions that should really have a say in any decisions on this: we’re the ones who would preserve, who would allow/deny access, who would keep the recordings safe from tampering to ensure the camera doesn’t lie.
What do you say? Should we record them all, and let TNA sort them out?