In days of old, the people were the criminal justice system. There were no police. If a crime happened, then the people of the village would come together to form a posse and the fugitive would be pursued across the fields. He would then be tried before a jury of twelve peers, from the village, and then his sentence would be done on the village green, with everybody watching and sometimes taking part.
Today the crime is publicised by the media, but then we, the community, are excluded. The police pursue their case in secret. The trial is held in relative secrecy, and, the jail sentence is conducted outside of the glare of public humiliation.
It’s a frustrating phenomenon of the modern world that however hard we try to explain that crime is falling the people are convinced that it’s rising. The distinction between actual crime and perceived crime makes a completely different curve on the graph.
When we ask the professionals why this is, they blame the media for the massive publicity they give to a major crime. In fact, the opposite is true. The exclusion of the media from the subsequent process is to blame. The media are allowed to report the crime, but then restricted in every subsequent step of the process.
Policy Makers have objected to cameras into court, dwelling on the O J Simpson trial, where witnesses appeared on chat shows to discuss the case, while the trial continued. But this is dwelling on the extreme to justify the objection.
Under the Labour government, media organisations made considerable investment on the assumption that the Blair administration would open the courts to transparency, but when Blair stepped down and Brown took over, the policy was dropped. Today, a hesitant Tory government is returning to the question. The Supreme Court has been televising judges sentences on the internet.
Advocates against transparency provide numerous reasons to sustain the status quo. Witnesses will be intimidated. Judges will play up to the cameras. Convicts will be bullied in prison if the sad details of their pre-sentence mitigations are revealed to the world. The list goes on. The very lawyers, who create the theatre of the contested trial, fear that if the theatre had an audience, the system would collapse.
Each of these submissions have merit to a degree. Some restrictions will be needed to stop the media from taking over, but only some, and only to stop the media taking over. The assumption must be transparency. The blanket exclusion, or over-restriction of the cameras from the courts, causes more harm than good. We need to know that a system is in place to make us safe.
When we are victims, we lose confidence in ourselves and in the society we have created. The teenager, who broke into our home and did so much violent damage to our property, is a huge and powerful figure in our mind. All our locks and our security measures were swept aside by his anger, strength and cunning. We were defeated by him. We are the lesser, and he is the greater. In this same way, the robber, who held a knife to our throat, is a powerful monster in our memory, since we were so powerless.
However, when we see him in court, giving evidence from the stand, we see a pathetic sad creature. We don’t see power, we see weakness. The monster that haunts our memory is exorcised.
As the experiment with cameras in court is expanded, the debate will continue and the reasons for restrictions will flow. The policy was dropped by Mr Brown not because the policy was faulty, but because the reasons for policy were not advanced.
We need to know that there is a system on our side. We need to see it in action. We need to witness the monsters at their most vulnerable. We need to know we are protected. We need to see the trials.