Ever since the 1935 U.S. trial of Bruno Hauptmann for the kidnap-murder of Charles Lindbergh’s son turned into a chaotic circus of flashing cameras, bright lights and microphones, the electronic media has been branded a disruptive force not fit to report on the reverential courts of justice. But now, for the first time in Canada, television cameras have revealed the inner workings of the courts to Ontario viewers. Last week actual three-minute segments of criminal and civil trials were shown in a five-part series by every television station in the province.
But this titillating glimpse of the courts in action was as much a promotional vehicle as an educational exercise. The Radio and Television News Directors Association of Canada, which produced the package, is using it as evidence to convince Ontario’s legal establishment, and ultimately its legislators, that broadcasters would act responsibly if allowed to tape trials as a matter of course. If the association is successful, it will set a precedent for other provinces to follow.
The camera was, in fact, an unobtrusive presence during proceedings that showed a defendant fighting a traffic offence, a jury selection in provincial court, a small claims court dispute and excerpts from three criminal trials, one of which involved a shooting death. Although the Ontario Supreme Court’s
subcommittee on media coverage of the courts has judged the series favorably, the members want to see a detailed proposal for safeguarding the sanctity of the courts before recommending that the Ontario law be changed.
Although 38 U.S. states now allow cameras into their courtrooms, no Canadian province condones the practice, except in a few rare cases. In Ontario, for example, the Judicature Act permits televised proceedings only when a judge makes an exception for ceremonial or educational purposes.
“The problem is that the conception is still of TV coverage as it was in the 1950s,” says Gord Haines, who, as news director of Toronto’s CITY TV station, helped put together the pilot project.
“Then it was like a carnival.” With advances in TV technology, however, one cameraman positioned at the back of the court can now provide footage using natural light and a small microphone.
But the concerns of many judges and lawyers go beyond the matter of technical feasibility. “The number 1 concern is that nothing be done to prejudice a per-
son getting a fair trial or endanger the safety of witnesses or jurors,” says Ontario Chief Justice William Howland, who heads the media committee. Adds Toronto criminal lawyer Earl Levy: “Now, if a jury finds you not guilty, it’s tough to dispel the stigma of a trial. But after it has been on television, it’s going to be practically impossible.” Broadcasters dismiss the suggestion that dramatic court cases depicting real-life soap operas would be good for ratings. TV and radio stations are pushing for court coverage, says Haines, because it would ensure accuracy and enlighten the public.
For now, however, the news directors’ group is in the process of drafting a proposal for amendments to the Ontario law. In November their pilot project will be screened for the New Brunswick Law Society to start the process of lobbying for legislative change in other provinces. Still, it may be a long time before the conservative guardians of the courts throw open their doors to the electronic media. One major point of contention is the insistence of many jurists that the presiding judge of a case should decide whether or not it will be televised, with the consent of all the parties involved. But broadcasters fear that if their right to coverage is put on trial in every case, they will be faced too often with a hung jury. -ANN KERR in Toronto.
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