Publication: The Natal Witness Issued: Date: 2004-10-14 Reporter: Opinion

Cameras in Court



The Natal Witness

Date 2004-10-14



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The proceedings of the King Commission of Inquiry into the allegations of bribery in cricket was broadcast live to the nation as were those of the Hefer Commission. Why, then, should not the Schabir Shaik trial now getting under way in Durban be treated likewise?

The first reason is that these were just that, commissions of inquiry, not trials. Hansie Cronje might have been on trial in the media but he was not charged by the state with anything nor found guilty of anything.

One of the basic principles of justice is that it must be seen to be done. Surely, then, the televising of court proceedings serves this end par excellence? Not necessarily. By reason of its intrusive nature it could well ensure that justice is not served. The difficulty with television coverage is that the immensely powerful zoom lens of the camera enables an unnatural, telescopic view of the scene. Each sweating brow, quivering lip or tear-stained cheek is magnified a thousandfold and projected into every living room in the land. This can be an asset when what is being viewed is, for instance, an international rugby or cricket match - why else do so many people prefer to watch sport close-up on the box rather than at a distance in a stadium? But it is no asset to justice when the hugely magnified subject is not a seasoned professional sportsman nor an actor used to performing in front of the cameras but a timid witness who, in the words of Judge Hillary Squires, might suffer "a sudden inability to communicate sensibly or intelligently".

The famous O. J. Simpson trial in the United States was televised throughout and, as a result, degenerated into a soap opera in which the defence played to an unseen gallery in a way that would never have happened had proceedings been confined to the four walls of the courtroom. Many would regard the outcome as a travesty of justice.

Moreover, television viewers have been fed a diet of courtroom dramas for a generation. Here the legal process is trivialised as entertainment, complete with the usual good guys and bad guys. But that is not what true justice should be about, when the focus must be not on television stars or popularity ratings but on getting to the bottom of the matter before the court and, ultimately, the conviction or exoneration of the accused.

Thus the ruling by Judge Hillary Squires against the televising of the proceedings of the Shaik trial is to be welcomed. His openness to consider allowing the cameras in for the closing arguments of the prosecution and the defence ,and his own judgment, when the intimidation of witnesses is no longer a consideration, is also sensible and welcome.

With acknowledgement to The Natal Witness.