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Simon Bradwell: Cameras in court serve the public

opinion Simon Bradwell

By Simon Bradwell

Published: 10:31AM Tuesday September 18, 2012 Source: ONE News

If I had a Rolex on each wrist, I still wouldn't have time for the suggestion we ban cameras from court-rooms.

What a travesty to the concept of open justice, what an insult to every member of the public.

The idea's been floated a bit recently, with the intense media coverage of high profile trials like those of Clayton Weatherston and Ewen Macdonald.

This week Law Society president Jonathan Temm said the practice of allowing cameras in court needed to be reviewed, and that we should look at live screening of court cases so news viewers aren't just given a highlights package that focuses on the juicy bits.

Mr Temm might know a bit about the law, but he clearly doesn't know much about television, because this suggestion is out of order.

Presumably, this live stream will be broadcast on the 24-hour Court Channel.

What a shame this channel doesn't, and won't ever, exist.

That's just one problem of course.

The other big flaw is that a lot of what happens in court couldn't be broadcast live, even if media outlets wanted to.

As Mr Temm knows, a lot of evidence presented in court is suppressed. And while suppression orders are often issued in advance, often they aren't.

Many times I've seen a lawyer get to his feet after a witness has finished giving evidence, and asked for elements to be suppressed. Unfailingly, the judge agrees.

Bit of a problem though if that evidence has already been broadcast live, isn't it?

And it's not just evidence. A lot of the details about witnesses are suppressed too.

Some can be named, some can't. Some can be filmed, some won't. Some can have their voice broadcast, some can't.

How long before any presiding judge's patience is naturally and understandably exhausted by deciding which aspects can be broadcast live?

What a handbrake that will be on the trial process as lawyers argue and appeal the rulings. Oh and media in court might be allowed a say on that too.

The court would spend more time discussing filming the case, than the case itself.

It might be well-intentioned but it's impractical and impossible.

I'm well aware and grateful that New Zealand media are treated very generously when it comes to court coverage.

Cameras are not nearly as welcome in Australian, British or American courts.

I know it's a privilege and I always do my utmost to make sure that while I'm in court, the camera crew and I respect that privilege.

I also happen to think that TVNZ's court coverage, and that of most media outlets, is extremely balanced, informative and fair.

Sure, mistakes happen. Sure, sometimes the emotions and drama on display take centre stage in coverage.

But media are the eyes and ears of the public. We don't show anything the public couldn't see for themselves, if they were there.

And increasingly, many do want to be there. Because of the light that we, and other media, are shining on the court.

We are taking it away from being a stuffy closed shop and showing how interesting and important it is.

Why did the public flock to the Ewen Macdonald trial? It wasn't to hear the niceties of a well-argued point of law.

How patronising for critics to suggest we shouldn't focus on the dramatic aspects of a day in court, but rather the legal process.

Courts don't just exist to give lawyers a job. Judges don't own courts. Actually, YOU do.

Courts are for people. They're for victims, the accused, the community.

People are affected by crime. They suffer loss. They cry, they get angry. How they give evidence in court is a crucial part of the legal process.

What greater transparency can we hope for, than to show the reality of crime and trial, to give it a human face?

Or should we just ignore the tears of a witness, the impassioned arguments of an eloquent lawyer, the reactions of the accused in the dock?

Maybe the old heads in their ivory tower would be happy with that, but not you, the public.

No, you would rightly want to know why the elitist legal fraternity has decided such events shouldn't be included in coverage.

Who are they to tell you what you can see?

Once you've taken the brave and intelligent decision to allow cameras into court, you can't reverse it.

That wouldn't just be backward, it would be repressive. It would be to give the public a right, then try and take it away. That's simply unacceptable.

I can't think of a single case where inappropriate media coverage of a trial has successfully been used as grounds of appeal.

Weatherston tried it and got shot right down by the Court of Appeal. I know, because I was there. And it's hard to think of a case with more court-room drama than that one.

The coverage might have got slightly excitable at times, but that was a case like no other.

I don't accept that the coverage demonised his lawyers either, who ran a provocation defence. Any right-thinking person knows that an accused is entitled to the best defence, and his lawyers were simply doing their job.

In fact, the coverage of that case raised the whole issue of provocation in the national consciousness. In the subsequent debate, the law was changed to ban that defence.

That's another thing: the law is an evolving, living thing. And laws are set to reflect the society we all live in.

One last point about cameras in court: in any court case, the right to film is entirely at the judge's discretion.

A judge can ban cameras without giving any explanation whatsoever. Media have to apply in each instance and we can be refused in each instance.

But most judges allow cameras in court. Because the principle of open justice is seen as so important, so key to our legal system, that it is trumped only by an accused's right to a fair trial.

So while it may not be perfect, by far the majority of our judges approve camera-in-court applications.

Sure, if rules are broken then media need to know and if necessary suffer a sanction. Court rules are often complex and not always explained well by judges, who sometimes suffer from the delusion that everyone has a law degree.

But let's keep the debate simple, and let's keep it logical. Suggesting we throw cameras out or live stream coverage is not an option.

Case dismissed.

Do you agree? Have your say on the messageboard below or on our Facebook page -

* Simon Bradwell has reported extensively on court cases for TVNZ, including the murder trials of Michael Wallace, who killed German backpacker Birgit Brauer; Daniel Moore, who killed and dismembered Wellington man Tony Stanlake; the gang associates accused of killing Wanganui toddler Jhia Te Tua; amputee Dean Mulligan who murdered his lover Marice McGregor; and Ewen Macdonald, who was acquitted of killing his brother-in-law Scott Guy. He also covered the sentencing of double-murderer Graeme Burton, and the unsuccessful appeal by Clayton Weatherston.

For more Simon Bradwell opinion click here

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  • IrishFellaInNZ said on 2012-09-18 @ 11:45 NZDT: Report abusive post

    What a surprise - the media don't agree on banning cameras?! Banning cameras wouldnt prevent any access to justice - the media would still be allowed in, the could film outside the court, the could still report - it would simply remove the ridiculousness. Your article actually exemplifies why the media should be kept out due to sensationalism - your article is full of it. If you read the report given and actually thought about it then your claims look as logical as though you work for Fox News