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Cameras in the courtroom: a schadenfreude spectacle, or justice televised?

4 mins read

The courtroom circus has returned to our screens. Broadcasting live from Fairfax, Virginia, the Depp v Heard defamation trial has the media world roaring with opinions and clown emojis. The media hype is inescapable, and the trial is yet to disappoint the thousands of people who tune in to watch the drama unfold in real-time.

Yet in front of the cameras lie serious issues, those of alleged domestic abuse and defamation. What should be a case of a justice system searching for the truth has become an outlet for ‘entertainment’, aided by the courtroom cameras. Clips and highlights from the trial have exploded across social media, claiming they’ve found the proof of the truth, the smoking gun. ‘Screw the justice system, let TikTok decide’.

Thus, we have the first problem with broadcasting in court. Especially in high-profile cases, the camera allows people in the courtroom to play for a wider audience. The inevitable product of filming and broadcasting a trial is that the majority of the wider audience wants to skip to the good bit, the juicy news.

They don’t see what the courtroom sees, they see an edit. Such edits tell the outside audience a different story, determined by what is newsworthy or dramatic. Suddenly, an exaggerative quote becomes the truth in the world beyond the court’s doors, partly bypassing the justice system.

People involved in a case should not perform; instead, they should simply tell their truth. When commentators describe your time in court as ‘the role of a lifetime’, alarm bells should begin ringing and questions asked; what is true, and is it just an act? If the cameras were taken away, the only audience to play for are those whose purpose is finding the truth, the judge and the jury.

Credit: bbc.co.uk

A camera might be a performer’s delight, but considerations need to be made for the whole process of justice. Not everyone is so inclined to be on film, and many less on a witness stand, to combine the two factors only creates an environment of greater stress.

Also worth mentioning is the torrent of online abuse which may follow afterwards, which has the potential to scare witnesses into revealing certain truths and not others, for fear of the court of public opinion.

Live broadcast cameras in courtrooms here in the UK are not as common, primarily because the law is strict in that sense. However, the law has loosened slightly over the last decade, and camera crews have begun a slow creep into the court.

There are undeniable benefits to cameras in the courtroom, namely that it helps to cast a light on the workings of our justice system and that it can be seen to be working correctly.

But we must ask ourselves; were millions of us glued to our phones, waiting for a journalist to live-tweet an update from the previous Depp case? Probably not. Would we care so deeply about a case if the cameras were not there? I don’t think so, else we’d just go to the courtroom.

If the UK ever begins considering further relaxing the law surrounding cameras in courts, we should stop, look at the examples throughout history, and weigh up the pros and cons.

Will more cameras create a transparent, modern-day justice system to be proud of? Or will it create a schadenfreude spectacle, so divisive that we trivialise the issues at hand, and forget what our justice system is really there for?

Featured Image Credit: metro.co.uk

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