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To film or not to film?

The UK is frequently compared to its younger sibling across the pond when it comes to policies and culture. Most recently, the contrast between British and American legal procedures came into focus following the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard defamation trial.

An issue which was initially pursued by Depp in the private UK courts migrated over the Atlantic where Depp initiated a new suit in the American justice system. The experience of these two trials, not to mention the outcomes, could not be more different. This can be attributed in part to the contrasting role of cameras in UK vs US courtrooms and the ways in which televised legal battles can be sensationalised.

While trials and sentencing in the UK is traditionally kept behind tightly closed doors, certain US courts permit extensive publicisation. When the defendants or plaintiffs are household names, such as Johnny Depp or OJ Simpson, the ‘open justice’ approach can quickly devolve into a media frenzy. Indeed, it is the risk of creating a media circus that can often be seen as the drawback of the US approach; however, it seems as though the UK justice system may be following in the footsteps of its American counterpart.

Just last month, after a legislational change pursued by British media giants, cameras were allowed into the crown courts for the first time to film a manslaughter sentencing. Unlike the more animated litigation scenes filmed in American trials, Judge Sarah Muro QC gave a solemn and measured speech, laying out the reasoning behind the sentencing and the laws at play.

This is the first of many televised sentencing remarks following the revised regulations which Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab argues will ‘improve transparency and reinforce confidence in the justice system.’ While some see this change as a positive turning point with great potential for increasing public understanding of the law, others question if this move will open the doors for the dramatisation of legal matters and put privacy at risk, akin to what has occurred with high-profile cases in the States.

Currently, only the decision announcement, as spoken by the judge, is allowed to be filmed. Yet, the presence of cameras poses the question of televising further aspects of trials–if the aim is to increase transparency and promote open and honest justice, then maybe a US-approach to filming all aspects of a case is more beneficial? On the other hand, when considering the mob-mentality media backlash faced by Amber Heard in the wake of her legal battle, is the right to personal privacy more important than the promotion of open justice?

These are the kinds of debates which the UK government and public must reckon with as the impacts of cameras in courts become more clear in the coming months. To film or not to film, that will be the question.


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