Voices: By filming trials, we risk turning justice into reality television

·4-min read

The first woman to be sentenced to life imprisonment on television in the UK was broadcast live for the world to watch. Jemma Mitchell, 38, was given a minimum sentence of at least 34 years after she was found guilty of murdering Mee Kuen Chong, an extremely isolated and vulnerable woman. It was a heinous act.

A new law came into force this summer allowing TV cameras to broadcast from crown courts for the first time in England. Only the judge and the sentencing remarks will be filmed, which brings into question the purpose of the broadcasting. If the trial itself – the lawyers, the court proceedings and the evidence – isn’t going to be broadcast, then what makes televising the sentencing in the public interest? Is it to show that the UK courts are “tough on crime”? Is it to encourage deterrence from committing criminal offences?

My concern is the potential creeping move towards cameras in courtrooms, which could culminate in the filming of the entire courtroom and individuals present. Could entertainment be prioritised over justice? Could rape or domestic abuse victims be reluctant to pursue a prosecution if their trial is broadcast?

We’ve all seen courtroom dramas play out on our TV screens: Judge Judy, Judge Rinder, Ally McBeal, Silk, Defending the Guilty, clips from Ted Bundy’s notorious trial and OJ Simpson’s trial; and then came the courtroom drama of the decade – the Depp v Heard defamation trial – which was live-streamed on YouTube for our entertainment. It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction; between real life and reality television. But there is a significant difference between those who are acting, and victims who have suffered horrendous abuses.

It’s unsettling, even disturbing, to watch a real trial, in real-time, with real victims retelling accounts of abuse on the same device that you also use to binge watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians or The Only Way is Essex. How are we expected to desensitise ourselves to one “show”, but not the other?

In May 2022, millions of people tuned in to watch the Depp v Heard US civil trial as if it was a reality TV show. It was all popcorn and drama, until it became trauma porn. We heard harrowing accounts of alleged abuse, sexual violence and intimate details about the couple’s lives that became clickbait. It turned into a popularity contest taking place in a courtroom with the most unlikable being mocked endlessly on social media. It was trial by TikTok. A real-life Judge Judy. Of course, Depp won the case and was awarded substantial libel damages.

Returning to criminal courts, it is a well-known fact that perpetrators of horrific crimes are usually charming or charismatic, this is precisely how they lure their victims in. When cases and trials focus on who is more likeable or entertaining, viewers are naturally drawn to the charming or funny individual as opposed to the vulnerable, traumatised one. A clear historical example of charisma and entertainment taking precedence over the banal reality of dealing with facts and evidence is the televised Ted Bundy case in 1979.

Ted Bundy’s trial was the first to be televised across the whole of the US, as he stood accused of the Chi Omega murders. The brutal attack on four of the Florida State University sorority’s members left two women dead. Bundy played on the courtroom’s cameras; with his good looks and charisma, he used it to his advantage and acted as his own lawyer – even speaking in the third person. The trial was covered by more than 250 journalists from around the world. Many were fascinated by a man who had evaded justice for many years and managed to orchestrate two escapes.

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As a family law barrister, I’ve seen very exceptional cases held online for public viewing. One such case involved allegations of rape, domestic abuse and coercive and controlling behaviour. I support transparency and accountability. It is important that the public “see” justice being done and that myths about how the justice system operates are dispelled.

However, I couldn’t help but feel a heavy heart when I saw people writing vicious sexist comments on Twitter about complainants of rape. My worry is that women and children will read social media comments and suffer re-victimisation and re-traumatisation. Wherever possible, the court should be a place of integrity and safety, it should never be used as a platform to cause further harm.

I do believe in upholding the transparency of court proceedings as well as reinforcing confidence in the justice system. Many people will never have set foot into a courtroom, yet it is important that people understand the inner workings of a key function of our democracy. By televising parts of the justice system, the public will be able to observe the justice system in action, which in turn could help the public better understand the complex decisions judges make each day.

It is clear that televised trials are a balancing act between transparency and accountability, which are staple pillars of a healthy, functioning justice system. But it must not deter victims from coming forward for fear that their trial – which may involve viscerally intimate details – will be thrust into the public eye just like any other TV drama.

Dr Charlotte Proudman is a barrister specialising in violence against women and girls, and a junior research fellow at Queens’ College, Cambridge