Courts in the viewfinder: B.C. proposal sparks debate on wider camera access
Allowing cameras in the courtrooms of criminal trials have some journalists saying it’s a threat to their livelihood. But as Alexandra Posadzki reports, it could also be used as a tool to increase public interest in court stories, and even create more demand for reporters in this field.
In an industry where live tweeting and citizen journalism abound, some reporters view allowing cameras into criminal trials as yet another threat to their livelihood. But others suggest that letting Canadian viewers see justice being done would increase interest in court stories – and create more demand for justice reporters.
Last month a British Columbia judge denied a Crown motion to broadcast court proceedings stemming from last year’s Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver. B.C. Premier Christy Clark had vowed that those responsible would not remain anonymous.
Judge Malcolm MacLean ruled an amicus – an independent lawyer – was needed to assess the cost of the initiative, dubbed “Riot TV,” and the potential impact on witnesses.
Canadian viewers have never been able to ogle courtroom dramas of O.J. Simpson proportions from the comfort of their homes the way Americans can.
There have been exceptions – in 2000, a B.C. judge allowed the closing arguments to be televised in the case of nine Korean sailors accused of human smuggling. And last year the closing arguments in the B.C. polygamy case were broadcast online.
Hearings at the Supreme Court of Canada have been broadcast for more than a decade. And Ontario’s attorney general has said he’s open to the idea of letting cameras into the province's courtrooms after a pilot project broadcast more than 20 appeal hearings in 2007.
But Toronto Star reporter Peter Small doesn't think cameras will become a fixture in the province's courtrooms anytime soon.
“For some reason, Ontario is extremely conservative in its approach to courts,” said Small. “Change comes slowly here.”
That’s good news for Star columnist Rosie Dimanno, who’s worried that broadcasting unfiltered testimony from the courtroom might usurp the role of journalists.
“Are we going to now sit in a newsroom and cover court events because they’re being televised, even when they’re in your own city?” said Dimanno. “Why don’t we then just outsource it to people in India? Maybe they can cover our courts from there.”
CBC lawyer Daniel Henry, who has been fighting for camera access for more than three decades, says broadcasting trials would give the public a more realistic view of what happens in court.
“At the end of the day, the decision should be made on the basis of public interest.”
Opponents of camera access list privacy, safety of participants and cost among their chief concerns. Henry says prosecutors in the Stanley Cup riot cases didn’t want to be on camera because they were worried for their safety. Another fear is that lawyers will play to the cameras, turning justice into a farce.
“The reality is it doesn’t happen,” says Henry, adding that lawyers tend to be more preoccupied with convincing judges and juries than playing to TV audiences.
“Cameras, when they are present, fade into the background just like reporters in the front benches of the courtroom fade into the background.”
Andy Leblanc, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, says it’s unlikely a court reporter’s job would change much if criminal trials were broadcast. But courtroom streams would make it easier to cover trials for television.
“Going to cover a court case as a television reporter is always a tremendous challenge,” said Leblanc. “You might get some shots as people go in or out of the court room ... and you're limited to that video.”
But a live-time stream from the courtroom won’t replace journalists. Someone has to sift through the raw material and make sense of it all.
“People don’t have time to sit and watch for five hours a day,” said Small. “They still would see some need for somebody to synthesize (the information) and bring forward the main points.”
In fact, Small says televising justice could generate more interest in the courts, increasing demand for justice reporters.
“If there were cameras in court, TV would have their visual raw material,” said Small. “So I would imagine that would increase their interest in courts, and I tend to think that's a good thing because the more media are interested in courts, the more public awareness and the more market there would be, even for print journalists.”
It’s still unclear whether viewers would tune in.
The number of people who went online to watch closing arguments in B.C.’s polygamy trial, the Globe and Mail reported in February, dropped from 2,616 on the first day to 384 on the last.
“Like everything else, there would be addicts who are absolutely glued,” said Small. “They would probably be a very, very small minority.”
Those whose family and friends are involved in the cases would watch, says Henry.
But regardless of how many people tune in, Leblanc says having increased access to the justice system is a good thing.
“It doesn't need to be something that is watched by mass audiences to be effective.”