Turning the cameras on the courts

Pam Frampton
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Lawyers and police speak to media outside court following Russell Williams’ trial in Belleville, Ont., Oct. 21. A recent poll of adult Canadians found that 51 per cent considered the media coverage of the trial balanced, and nearly half are in favour of more cameras in the courts. — Photo by The Canadian Press/Lars Hagberg

“You know, the courts may not be working anymore, but as long as everyone is videotaping everyone else, justice will be done.”

— Marge Simpson on “The Simpsons”


Now that the unspeakably sadistic killer Russell Williams is behind bars, it’s interesting to look back at how his trial was covered.

The national media, of course, had people on the ground and in the courtroom in Belleville, Ont., while smaller organizations like The Telegram and CBC locally relied on national reporters or news services to feed coverage to us.

But even here at The Telegram, it wasn’t just a matter of running the articles supplied by The Canadian Press. We had access to an array of disturbing photos, and that meant we had to make a decision.

While the Belleville court chose not to show the horrible videos Williams shot of himself committing rape, torture and murder, the court did provide photographs of evidence, including dozens of disturbing self-portrait photos of Williams wearing underwear belonging to the girls and women whose homes he had invaded.

We opted not to run those photos, because we felt they would be too disturbing for some readers and because we did not want to revictimize the girls and women whose privacy and security he had violated. Instead, we used only current photos of Williams and file photos of his murder victims.

Other newspapers took a different approach. Some posted a gallery of evidence photos on their websites — but did not publish them in their papers — for people who wanted to see them, with a warning to viewers that they contained disturbing images.

Other media outlets had reporters blogging live from inside the courtroom, providing a detailed play-by-play of Williams’ every move and gesture — a type of coverage that, to me, undermined the seriousness of the matter, since in an effort to keep the online coverage flowing, there were often offhand exchanges between reporters.

I’ve heard more sombre golf commentary.

But there was plenty of coverage to choose from, and readers and listeners and viewers could basically absorb as much or as little information about Williams’ crimes and his prosecution as they wished.

The Toronto Sun reported last week that an Angus Reid poll of 1,017 Canadian adults found that “51 per cent said news agencies had struck an appropriate balance in the amount of coverage of Williams’ case.”

And that’s a good thing.


Provide access to all

But what if members of the public wanted more? What if they wanted to give the judicial process greater scrutiny? What if they wanted to judge for themselves what Williams’ demeanour revealed, or wanted to hear the families of the victims read their impact statements, or hear the judge admonish Williams for his depravity?

Of course, not all of us could afford to fly to Ontario and make time to attend the trial in person — even if the court was large enough to accommodate everyone.

Which is why the Williams case, and the Robert Pickton case, and the Robert Latimer case and various wrongful conviction cases, and any other deemed of significance to the Canadian public, should be open to greater scrutiny.

And that scrutiny means better access for cameras, whether that means fixed cameras for CPAC-style court coverage or just better access for the cameras of individual media outlets.

As Dartmouth, N.S., lawyer David Coles noted in an article written by Dean Jobb of Halifax in the Sept. 19, 2008 edition of Lawyer’s Weekly, “Access to a judicial proceeding should not be based on first-come, first-served and who has spare time on their hands and can afford it.”

Quoted in the same article, Toronto-based CBC lawyer Daniel Henry argues, “The single most important step our judicial system can take to announce that it is open to scrutiny is to permit camera access to courts.”

Now, that’s not to say we have to move towards the American free-for-all model of court TV, where little is sacrosanct.

We would not have to show the members of the jury, for example, nor would cameras in court be permitted to show witnesses or victims whose identities have been protected by publication bans, and nor should family court matters be open to public scrutiny.

But there’s no reason why cameras should not be allowed in other cases.

And there is growing support for just that.


Lifting ban

Last week’s Angus Reid poll found that “About 49 per cent of the respondents said they’d support lifting the longstanding ban on cameras and recording devices in Canadian courtrooms.”

Of course, even if there was a move towards more fixed-camera televised court proceedings, it doesn’t mean reporters would stop covering court and analyzing justice issues.

Many members of the public wouldn’t have time to follow court proceedings if they were broadcast in their entirety and would still rely on the media to provide accurate, objective coverage and analysis of significant cases, as well as justice issues that unfold outside the courts.

But what it would do is give reporters better access to the court and more tools to do their jobs.

And it would give citizens who have the time and interest the opportunity to watch justice unfold; to scrutinize how judges and lawyers conduct themselves; to become more educated about how the law works; to understand more fully the ramifications of crime on victims and their families; and perhaps — by becoming one more witness to proceedings — even help ensure that justice is truly served, and observed.


Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor. She can be reached by email at pframpton@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: The Telegram, CBC, Canadian Press Toronto Sun CPAC

Geographic location: Belleville, Ontario, Dartmouth

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