Lord Neuberger, president of the Supreme Court, has praised South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius trial, which was controversially televised. Neuberger’s comments were included in a speech in which he stressed the value of open justice.
Neuberger said that broadcasting trials “is merely the modern extension of enabling the public to enter the courts physically.” Like making courts open to public visitors, televising a trial gives ordinary people access to the proceedings of the justice system and the ability to see how decisions are reached first hand.
Lord Neuberger, speaking in Hong Kong to the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club, said that “Open justice is an essential feature of the rule of law. In its most basic form, it means that court hearings take place in public and judges’ decisions are available to the public.” He also stressed the importance of making sure that the way in which information was provided to the public was not only accessible but comprehensible, and described the role of the media in doing this as “essential.”
By contrast, he said, “if courts sit in private, judges cease to be properly accountable for their decisions, as the public do not know what the evidence and arguments were put before the judge, or why the judge reached a particular decision.” Furthermore, Neuberger warned that courts may “get into bad habits” should the doors be shut to the press and the public, and this could erode confidence in the integrity of the justice system.
On this basis, Neuberger decidedly expressed his support for the concept of televising trials. However, he acknowledged that it is important to approach the matter in the right way. For example, he described the US’ trial of OJ Simpson as a lesson “in how not to do it.” By contrast, he praised the more recent coverage of South Africa’s trial of Paralympian Oscar Pistorius, calling the media handling of the trial “impressive.”
Neuberger also stressed that it was essential journalists do not abuse their privileged position in passing on vital information about legal proceedings to the public. He acknowledged that simplification and even bias are likely to creep into the way that judgements are reported, and also that the media will likely level criticism at some aspects of the law. However, he insisted that through this the reporting process should remain “based on accuracy and truth rather than misreporting and propaganda.”
Summing up the importance of journalistic integrity in this process, he said “Inaccurate and unfair reporting of a judge’s decision in order to make a good story is an abuse of the freedom of expression accorded to the press and it undermines the rule of law.”