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Thursday, 24 January, 2002, 11:05 GMT
Law and the cameras make uneasy friends
Frame grab - Lockerbie trial
History in the making: Lockerbie trial on TV
The screening of Lockerbie trial is the latest instalment in a 300-year battle between the media and the courts over the public's right to know.

At one time it was completely illegal to report what went on in the courts - and that included Parliament which, in constitutional terms, is also defined as a law court.

20 year debate

Increasing access to the courts and Parliament has gone hand in hand with the spread of democracy over the decades and centuries.

Recent milestones include the televising of the UK Parliament. Now accepted as part of the landscape, coverage was restricted to radio and newspapers until November 1989 for fear that it would tempt politicians to play up to the cameras and bring the House into disrepute.

The Commons debated the wisdom of letting the cameras in for 20 years before taking the plunge. Even then it was on a purely experimental basis, until it was found that democracy had not collapsed as a result.


Unless there is good reason, nothing should be done to prevent the publication to the wider public of fair and accurate reports of court proceedings by the media.

Lord Justice Judge, Senior Presiding Judge, Judicial Studies Board

For centuries it was thought that letting the general public know what was going on either in Parliament or in the courts could only make the business of exercising power more complicated.

Judges and MPs took the view that they were perfectly competent to decide what to do, and their deliberations - like for instance the board of directors of a company today - were best carried out in private.

The hoi polloi - who did not even have the vote - had no need to know what was being decided in their name.

Any mention of what happened in the courts or in Parliament was a criminal offence known as "contempt of court" or "contempt of Parliament" punishable by a long stretch in prison.

Artists

Parliament
Question Time: Parliamentary TV now taken for granted
The law of contempt of court is still in force today, though now in a form designed to protect the right of the accused to a fair trial and the witnesses to freedom from intimidation or notoriety.

But taking any form of recording equipment into an English or Welsh court still constitutes contempt of court.


Cameras in the courtroom permit people to see for themselves rather than relying on secondary information from legal spin doctors and press

Dr Paul Mason, leading UK expert on the law and television

It is even contempt of court to produce a drawing inside the court. The characteristic smudgy sketches on TV and in the papers of court cases are produced by specialist artists who make notes during the trial and then do the drawing quickly from memory once outside the court.

Restrictions

Written reports of court cases have long been allowed. But judges have held onto the right to impose blanket "reporting restrictions" - meaning that nothing can be written down, published or broadcast - when they think justice will not be served.

OJ Simpson
On trial: televised OJ Simpson case was a worry

Judges in modern times have generally accepted that reporting of cases helps the process of justice being "seen to be done" . But they have also kept media reporting within tight limits.

Fair Trial

The danger is that the jury in a criminal case might be swayed by media coverage, or that witnesses might be scared off or fail to tell the "whole truth" if they know they are going to be all over the newspapers or - worse still - TV.

Editors and reporters have argued the exact opposite - that nobody can be sure of getting a fair trial if it takes place in secret and that they play a vital role in preventing abuse of the justice system and corruption in Parliament.

Louise Woodward
Trial by TV: Louise Woodward complained about cameras
The first breakthrough for the press came as long ago as the 18th Century when the government tried - and failed -to prevent publication of parliamentary reports written by the pioneering journalist John Wilkes.

Laws passed in 1738 and 1771 outlawed the publication of parliamentary proceeding but when the speaker of the House of Commons tried to have Wilkes arrested riots broke out and the law was eventually changed.

Showbiz

TV cameras have been allowed in Scottish courts under strict supervision since 1992 and the government has reportedly been studying the possibility of allowing them into English and Welsh courts since the late '90s.

Moves to introduce cameras may have been set back by the experience of the televised trials of OJ Simpson and former nanny Louise Woodward trial horrified many judges who thought they smacked of showbiz theatrics rather than process of law.

Soap Opera

The BBC was finally given permission to film the proceedings of the appeal by Abdelbaset ali Mohmed al-Megrahi against his conviction in the Lockerbie case after a long discussion. Again the judges are keeping close tabs on what should and shouldn't be broadcast.

But it is an important test for the relationship between the law and the cameras. Much will probably depend on whether judges feel that their presence somehow influences what is said by witnesses or affects the result of the appeal.


In DepthIN DEPTH
Lockerbie case
Live coverage and latest news from the appeal
See also:

26 Mar 99 | Tom Brook
Judging the TV courtroom
28 Jan 02 | Louise Woodward case
Woodward on trial by TV
27 Dec 00 | UK
Court TV plans denied
25 Apr 00 | Lockerbie Trial
Head to head: Cameras in court
22 Feb 00 | Scotland
BBC seeks Lockerbie TV approval
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