Simon Reevell: We must focus on fairness and justice if we want to put our courts on camera

FREDERICK Seddon murdered spinster Eliza Barrow by poison in 1911 in North London. It was a particularly unpleasant case which was prosecuted by the then Attorney General who damned the killer with one particular piece of cross-examination.

Seddon had inherited Miss Barrow’s estate but buried her in a pauper’s grave. “Did you like her?” asked the Attorney General. If he said “no” at his trial for her murder, Seddon was in difficulty. If he said “yes”, he was – at best – a hypocrite. In the end, he was convicted and sentenced to death.

Although distressing, Seddon would have been long forgotten – but for one thing. A Daily Mirror photographer took two pictures, covering between them the full panorama of the court at precisely the moment that the judge passed the death sentence.

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The photograph was published and there was something of an outrage at what was regarded as a grotesque intrusion of the Press at that of all moments, and notwithstanding Seddon’s crime.

This started a campaign which led to cameras being banned from the criminal courts. The Government now proposes to reverse this.

John Whittingdale, the chairman of Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, has said that he finds it “quite difficult to think of any arguments against it”.

I don’t know if he regards criminal justice as culture, media or sport but he should think harder. These days the privacy of a man being sentenced to death may or may not count for very much but what else is shown in the “Seddon” photograph at least deserves consideration.

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The judge can clearly be identified, as can the lawyers; the others who are clearly identifiable are the members of the jury.

The proposals outlined yesterday propose only televise sentencing, but critics already say that this is not enough and the whole trial process should be televised.

Live coverage of a trial sounds interesting until a juror arranges to record proceedings and decides the case over a few cans and a curry when he gets home!

Despite these protests, common sense and good practice may dictate that the faces of the jury are never shown – although they are clearly visible in televised trials in the USA – but what about the victim in a sex case? No one would expect an image of the victim to be broadcast but what if the details of the case, together with the identity of the defendant, could cause the complainant to be identified? What about their voice, even if they testify from behind a screen? So what exactly is to be shown or broadcast? How are the courts to be televised?

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The sudden rush to televise the courts appears to be linked to a campaign by Sky News suggesting that the sentences imposed on rioters would be better understood if the imposition of the sentence was seen on television – presumably on Sky.

It’s a nice argument, but these cases would be also better understood if they were carefully, fully and accurately reported in the first place. Are we really going to see each mitigation and sentence from Crown Courts up and down England shown on our TV screens or will it be a few soundbites followed by a second hearing in front of a panel of TV pundits – ex-footballer Alan Hansen criticising weaknesses in the defence?

The more serious point is that if the plan is to show guilty pleas and sentencing, then what if the details of the offence gives away so much about the lives and losses of the victims and their families?

A sentencing hearing makes little sense if the facts of the case are not heard. That’s why cases in our already public courts are “opened” – even though all those involved already know the facts. But these facts are often an account of individual tragedy and loss.

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Even a judge’s sentencing remarks justifying the sentence about to be imposed by relating how the burglar stood over the sleeping householder before stealing items of great emotional value is televising a chapter of someone’s life rather than the state trial of some former dictator.

An end to the blanket ban on TV coverage of the Crown Courts may be overdue, but the Government must be clear about what it means by “letting in the cameras” – and about the reasons for so doing.

It must be wary of allowing limited access without recognising that broadcasters will push for more once the absolute bar is removed. It must think carefully about the role it requires citizens to fulfil when they are called upon to provide evidence against suspected criminals and consider whether evidence gathering will be made more difficult as people realise that they might be identified from their account, even if they are not named, as the detail is mentioned on television.

Most importantly, it must consider the balance between a desire to see criminals sentenced on TV and the right to privacy of those who are victims of crime.

To modernise is not always to improve and simply wanting to be seen to be modernising should never be the driving force for change.

Simon Reevell is a barrister and the Conservative MP for Dewsbury.

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