Monday, March 19, 2012

See no evil? Not on TV in court, anyway

Another judge has forbidden Canadians to watch what happens in our courts.

The Canadian Press reports today:

A Manitoba judge says allowing cameras to broadcast the sentencing of disgraced former hockey coach Graham James for sexual abuse would turn the highly charged case into a spectacle and could violate the sex offender's privacy.
Judge Catherine Carlson denied an application Monday by a media consortium to set up two live TV cameras in the Winnipeg courtroom where James will learn his fate Tuesday.
"This case is highly charged enough. It's not going to become a spectacle," Carlson said in her ruling.

A spectacle? I thought the courts were open to the public.

The problem for the public is that few of us can take time away from caring for children, working, studying, whatever occupies most of our days, to head down to the courthouse.

Media lawyer Bob Sokalski made this argument clearly, though not successfully.

Even if we can afford to attend court, the courtroom is likely to accommodate only a few spectators.

This is a perfect setting for live television coverage, particularly in a case of tremendous public interest such as this one.

It’s not as if television is some strange new medium.  It’s at least  85 years old; that's older than any judge now sitting in Manitoba (I hope).

Television was demonstrated in 1927; the opening of the New York World’s Fair was televised in 1939.

Courts, including many in Manitoba, routinely allow journalists to cover cases through much newer media such as Twitter.

In fact, this ruling barring a nearly-century-old medium was all over social media and news websites moments after it was delivered.

I generally support judges against criticism that they are out of touch with the public will. In my experience, judges are hard-working, honest and fair, concerned above all to be able to deliver clear reasons for their decisions.

So this is not a personal criticism of Judge Carlson. No doubt she has carefully considered all aspects of this question.

But surely the time has come for senior judges and the provincial and federal governments to say the public must be invited more clearly into the court system.

That means televising court proceedings.