No Cameras Don’t Mean No Drama

Reading this Bloomburg News report, U.K. Judges Face O.J. Simpson-Style Trials With Cameras in Court, one might think there was only one trial ever that had camera coverage.

That’s only one misleading implication in this story. Another one and an outright error show up in the opening paragraphs. Here are those paragraphs:

“The U.K. justice system, where judges in criminal cases still wear 18th century-style horsehair wigs and winged collars, will take a step toward U.S.-style legal dramas when cameras are allowed in court.

“The judiciary is allowing English cases to be filmed for the first time outside of the Supreme Court starting in October, introducing a system that began in the U.S. in the early 1990s, when the O.J. Simpson murder trial captivated a global audience. The move, which comes after a decade of lobbying by British broadcasters, heralds an era of transparency in a profession steeped in tradition.”

So let’s start with the headline.

Allowing courtroom-camera coverage in no way means that U.K. judges will be faced with O.J. Simpson-style trials–whatever that is supposed to mean.

With thousands of court cases photographed, videotaped and broadcast live over the past three-plus decades, it is beyond absurd to think that U.K. proceedings with camera access will approximate just one of those cases.

The misleading statement in the first paragraph, that cameras turn courtroom proceedings into legal  dramas, is equally ludicrous. Of the countless photographed and televised courtroom proceedings that have occurred in the U.S. and the dozens I have personally witnessed, those that could even come close to “legal dramas” are rare.

In fact, I know of more trials that could have been termed legal dramas where cameras were not allowed than proceedings where cameras were allowed. James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger Jr., Scott Peterson, Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart criminal trials come immediately to mind.

The error in the first paragraph is the assertion that “a system that began in the U.S. in the early 1990s, when the O.J. Simpson murder trial captivated a global audience.” Cameras have been allowed in California courtrooms since 1981 when the state approved a temporary rule permitting camera access. That rule became permanent in 1984.

Florida recently celebrated the 35th anniversary of its pioneering program of allowing courtroom-camera access, which started a nationwide trend.

Two former Florida Supreme Court chief justices and a former associate justice reported in a 2009 article in The Florida Bar News on the success of that policy over the years.

This is the conclusion of the associate justice: “Proudly, Florida celebrates 30 years of cameras in courtrooms because cameras make better citizens knowledgeable and able to participate in bringing needed changes to courts and to the justice system.”

The entire Bloomberg article is misleading because it implies that cameras are being allowed to report and record trials and other court-of-first-instance proceedings.

Opponents and skeptics “…warn it could affect the actions of judges and lawyers who may play to the cameras.”

On the upside, Richard Moorhead, a professor of law and ethics at University College London speculated that “Judges will pay a little more attention to public opinion than they once did.”

But wait! It wasn’t until I got to the end of this article that I found that “A full roll-out of cameras in the U.K. Court of Appeal is scheduled to start in October, with access eventually extended to sentencing decisions in criminal courts.”
Court of Appeal? Not trial courts?
I assume U.K. Court or Appeal sessions approximate those at the appellate-court level in this country. They basically involve a judicial review of the record of proceedings in lower courts. In other words, boring! That is why rarely, and I mean very rarely, do news organizations ever ask to get their cameras in courts of appeal.
So what drama are anti-camera U.K.ers worried about?
Too bad media coverage of one nearly 20-year-old trial is still contaminating the thinking of legal officials around the world and limiting public access to courts.

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