Justice system should lead and the media will follow
Second in a two-part series
"The broadcast of courtroom proceedings can serve the function of public education and can promote public awareness and understanding of the workings of our system of justice."
- From the Cameras in the Courtroom report of the Law Society of Newfoundland and Labrador, 2001
Despite Graham James' best efforts not to be photographed last week when he was sentenced to two years in jail for sexually assaulting boys, the disgraced former hockey coach's face ended up in the papers after all.
Someone leaked a copy of what is reportedly a jailhouse photo of James to the Winnipeg Free Press, and it appeared in many papers Monday, including The Telegram.
James had covered much of his face on his way into court, and earlier, a provincial court judge had ruled against a media consortium that had applied to broadcast and photograph court proceedings.
Manitoba usually forbids the use of cameras in the court, but the media argued, in part, that people had a right to know what the convicted sexual predator looked like, for their own future safety.
In rejecting the media's application, Judge Catherine Carlson said allowing cameras in the courtroom would violate the privacy of James and his victims.
But I don't really think that's the crux of the matter.
I suspect, instead, that it hinges on the fact that the media is obliged by necessity to pick and choose which cases it covers. There was interest in the Graham James case, but another case might attract no interest, and that doesn't always win you favour with the justice system.
The fact is, we can't cover court consistently. Why? Because media outlets don't have the resources to staff every trial and, given that reality, we try to pick stories we think will pique public interest or inform readers and viewers about important aspects of the justice system.
So, yes, we would cover the murder trial before the shoplifting case, but we might also do stories about the consequences of skipping jury duty or what it takes to fight a traffic ticket.
It is the arbitrary nature of our coverage to which many opponents of cameras in the courts object, as well as the fact that we present coverage that is condensed.
Edward J. Ratushny, an emeritus professor of law at the University of Ottawa and an expert in the Canadian judiciary, put it this way in an email message to The Telegram:
"I think the main concern is the potential effect of editing on the message that is conveyed.
"I see nothing wrong with cameras conveying exactly what one would see and hear in the courtroom in complete context," he wrote.
"Of course, the problem for media is that this can become boring. Instead, an edited clip of dramatic moments could be much more interesting. Visual content can be more dramatic than the written word.
"The editing is potentially distorting and repeated showing could multiply the distorting effects on the public. This could result in unfairness to witnesses, victims and the accused.
"There have been numerous reports by law reform commissions and judicial councils as to how to achieve openness with fairness, but an ideal solution has not yet been found."
But wait - perhaps there is one.
Daniel Stepniak, who is now an associate professor of the law school at the University of Western Australia, raised an interesting concept in a paper he presented at a conference in October 2005, entitled "Court TV: Coming to an Internet Browser Near You."
"I argue for a need to move beyond seeing the issue of cameras in courts in terms of whether the media should be permitted to record and broadcast proceedings, and endeavour to outline a case for why courts should play a proactive role in facilitating public access to information about courts," he wrote, "including audiovisual recordings of court proceedings."
He makes a good point. If Canada has an open justice system, then the justice system itself needs to lead the way in educating the public about how it works, rather than relying solely on the media to perform the role of educator.
Sure, the media's role is, in part, to educate and inform the public, but we can only do the best with what we have.
Perhaps it's time the justice system got out in front and began streaming live coverage of court cases on the web, as Stepniak points out is already happening in some jurisdictions. Not for family court matters, of course, but cases the public would normally have access to if they could attend in person.
Cameras could be fixed so that victims and minors would not be shown and people would be able to follow a trial through from start to finish, gaining context that can't always be provided in news stories because of resource, space and time limitations.
As Stepniak notes: "While it may be the media's role to inform and scrutinize court decisions of public interest, acting as 'surrogates for the public' does not make the media a publishing or broadcasting service for the courts."
Court TV - not a new concept, certainly. The Supreme Court of Canada has been broadcasting select cases for years, as do numerous United States courts.
It's a concept worth considering. As Stepniak argues, it would not replace media coverage, but would be a resource for media and an alternative for the public to abbreviated reports truncated by time and space restrictions. In fact, he argues it would likely result in better news stories, since reporters could use the webcast as backup.
"Florida's experience," he writes, "reveals that rather than replacing media reporting, the streaming of proceedings has been welcomed by and has enhanced the media's court reporting."
Meanwhile, until other jurisdictions follow this province's lead and allow cameras inside the courtroom - let alone court-orchestrated webcasts - sexual predators like Graham James will still sometimes succeed in keeping out of the public eye, even as they face the music.
Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram's associate managing editor. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: pam_frampton