Cameras in court throw us in at the deep end before we’re ready

Without a more sophisticated knowledge of the law, a casual viewer will inevitably filter what they see through the biases they already harbour.

The Court of Appeal is to be televised for the first time now that a ban on cameras in courts in England and Wales has been lifted.

High-profile media organisations have been lobbying for such a move for some time and the first broadcast has already been made from the Royal Courts of Justice.

There is no question that the justice system ought to be public. That necessarily means that it ought to be as publicly accessible and visible as possible. Indeed, this is an aim that the justice system itself should actively pursue by taking measures to enable as many people as possible to gain access to the system’s operations.

Televising court proceedings is one important step in that direction for the obvious reason that the justice system now potentially reaches a much wider audience. That said, it’s unlikely that daytime television producers should be losing any sleep over losing viewers. Audience figures are generally low elsewhere.

It is commendable that the televising of trials is being introduced very carefully. It is wise to restrict it initially to appellate proceedings, which resist being sensationalised much more than first-instance court hearings. I am also not particularly concerned that bringing the Court of Appeal in people’s living rooms will result in a lack of respect. In fact, people may well respect courts more, if they can see with their very eyes that courts are serious and fair.

There are, however, some concerns as to whether televising trials can satisfy the principle of publicity. Some hope that direct access to proceedings will unclutter people’s perception of the justice system not least by cutting out the press and its various biases as the middleman for delivering information to the public about what goes on within their walls. The idea seems to be that if the viewer has first-hand experience of the goings-on in court, they will also form an unbiased view on what is being discussed.

But can this really be true? Proceedings in the Court of Appeal in particular can revolve around extremely complex technical issues, which are impossible to grasp properly without an advanced understanding of the law and legal method. Whether it is a good or a bad thing that law can be so difficult to grasp is an important but separate question. The point is that, without a more sophisticated knowledge of the law, a casual viewer will inevitably filter what they see through the biases they already harbour in a way that distorts the meaning of what it is in fact going on in the courtroom. Imagine, for example, how a sentencing appeal which is upheld for good reasons can easily be misunderstood and how this can trigger disagreements for all the wrong reasons.

For justice to be public it needs to be more than just visible. It is necessary that the justice system communicate its operations to the public in an understandable and undistorted way. If justice is to be open, then people should be given the chance to fully understand what the legal issues really are in each case, what exactly the courts have decided when they deliver a ruling, why they reached the decision and what the alternatives were The public also deserves to know what the future ramifications of their decision will be.

If it is bias that we’re trying to eliminate, throwing people in at the deep end of the justice system is not the solution. Information about the law must be properly edited and communicated for it to be of any value and for it to inform political dialogue without the risk of legal populism. But instead of leaving this exclusively to the press or commentators in the blogosphere, it should be done by accountable public officials.

Emmanuel Melissaris does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Royal Courts of Justice. (Photo: Getty)
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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.