The Malta Independent 30 March 2023, Thursday
View E-Paper

Televised court proceedings

Mark Said Sunday, 29 January 2023, 09:11 Last update: about 3 months ago

Everybody, today, is aware of that fundamental principle of justice, namely that it should not just be done but also seen to be done. Well, in furtherance of such a principle, Labour MP Glenn Bedingfield has come up with the idea of starting a discussion about what sort of access the media should have in our courtrooms. Like any other novelty argument, such a development would have its pros and cons.


If and when TV cameras do make their entrance into our courtrooms, this should not be done in an unbridled manner and a number of restrictions would have to be put in place for various reasons. For one thing, the trial participants' primary audience would shift from the case at hand to the external public, courtroom distractions would increase, and witnesses, already uncomfortable and stressed because of having to appear in court, would be further stressed, thus hampering the free flow of information.

If we are to consider a trial by jury then, jurors, concerned with being on television, would not concentrate on the trial proceeding to the extent that they should. Lawyers would be tempted to play to the television cameras (and there are quite a few with that inclination) rather than focus on the basic elements of the case at hand. Television cameras tend to portray defendants as being guilty and produce a climate of hostility toward defendants. The result being, all else held constant, a greater likelihood of guilty verdicts being returned due to the presence of the camera in the courtroom.

Television tends to sensationalize cases, with the result being decisions based on passion and emotion rather than reason and rationality. Consequently, the judicial system would lose control of its own proceedings. A distorted picture of court proceedings would be portrayed to a wide audience, thus further undercutting an already much-maligned social institution.

Of course, in theory, public awareness of what happens in our courts serves to bolster public confidence in the administration of justice. Providing fair trials in the public eye bolsters public confidence in the administration of justice, and hence in our democratic form of government. It is therefore a matter of concern if members of the public rarely come into our courts to observe what goes on in them. Stating that our courts, as a general principle, are open to all is one thing. But it must be a reality. In July of 2021, Judge Sarah Munro QC made English legal history when, in a trial by jury, her clear and cogent sentencing remarks were captured by television cameras, allowed to film proceedings in a crown court in England for the very first time.

From another point of view, if a well-planned televised court system is worked out, there could be huge advantages and benefits to rebuilding the tarnished reputation of our judiciary. My modest proposal would be to allow the televising of sentencing remarks in criminal trials and an executive summary of judgments delivered by the presiding judge in civil cases. This would seem to be an innocuous and uncontroversial proposition since it would impose no pressure on witnesses or others in the case, and so would be difficult to oppose. Surely judges, of all people, are immune to the presence of a television camera? The benefits of such an initial step are self-evident. Sentencing policy has been one of the Maltese judiciary’s hottest potatoes and one that arouses deep suspicion in the mind of the public. If they could hear judges explaining, in their own voices, their thinking in deciding on a particular sentence it would surely improve public confidence.

Transparency and visibility would help the public understand how the criminal justice system works, and shining a light on the workings of the courtroom could only serve to boost its efficiency and effectiveness. A practical and rational view can be taken of the way to solve objections to televising specific types of cases which could be affected by the presence of cameras, for example, sex offences and family disputes. The presiding judge would decide, and would always have the right to veto the televising of any case.

If ever the law is changed to explicitly allow TV broadcasts from our courtrooms, there will need to be a period of consultation when the rules are drawn up. The broadcasters and private media outlets would have to set out a number of criteria regarding which cases they will actually cover. The presiding judge should always have the last word and should be empowered to make an exception if he or she decided there was a risk the presence of cameras might prevent justice from being done.

So far, there is no clear and convincing evidence that television cameras in the courtroom would negatively affect courtroom personnel nor place undue hardship on trial participants. As it is, modern technology has made television camera equipment less cumbersome, allowing deployment in a relatively discreet and unobtrusive fashion. Court participants would perform in a more professional fashion, knowing that the proceedings are being televised, unless it will turn out to be a charade, that is, as often happens with televised parliamentary sessions.

At the end of the day, the whole idea is worth considering. When you can tweet from court there is no reason why you cannot have cameras. After all, the courtroom is a public forum and the public has the right to know.


Dr Mark Said

  • don't miss