Editorial: Criticism of TV in courts unfounded

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Televising of court cases criticised by Jonathan Temm for distorting reality. Photo / Supplied
Televising of court cases criticised by Jonathan Temm for distorting reality. Photo / Supplied

How absurd for the president of the Law Society to criticise televising of court cases for distorting reality. Jonathan Temm believes broadcasts of some court cases over the past 15 years have helped force an undesirable law change, contributed to losses of confidence in the courts and respect for justice, and to the demonising of notorious protagonists.

He told an international justice conference television cameras "lie to the viewer" and broadcasters have not met their obligation to fairly and accurately report court cases. In calling for a review of the judiciary's decision to allow cameras in courts, he claimed an ill-informed public's demand for tougher criminal justice policies arose from a diet of incomplete and sensationalised televising of high-profile cases.

Mr Temm's jaundiced view may arise from feedback from his colleagues. Certainly, some lawyers seem to regard the courts as their tribal domains, arenas for Stage 1 Latin and undergraduate debating, mixed with a disdain for the media and worse, the public, who dare intrude upon this forum.

They give lip service to open justice - seeking and granting suppressions without merit, gaming the system, challenging admissibility of evidence so juries cannot hear all the facts, and manipulating police summaries to minimise their clients' guilt. That is distorted reality.

The media have long taken their place in courts as the surrogates of the public to ensure justice is seen to be done and reported fairly and accurately. Allowing television and still cameras into courts from the 1990s, subject always to the judge's authority, meant New Zealanders could see salient parts of proceedings for themselves.

Latterly, online sites also make use of video from courtrooms. A committee of judges and media representatives meets regularly to oversee the system.

Mr Temm seems to think either no televising or full unedited broadcasts are preferable to summaries in news items. Yet his specific criticisms do not stand scrutiny and, for lack of evidence, he has failed to make a case.

He claims, for example, television reporting of the Clayton Weatherston trial led to public controversy over the defence of provocation and a subsequent law change to abolish it.

First, the use of that defence, rather than televising of the hearing, stirred the controversy. Second, had television not been able to film in court, radio, print and TV reports without video would still have reported the defence and its articulation. Third, a separate, untelevised murder case in Auckland, in which the defence argued provocation because the deceased had made a homosexual advance, caused a furore before the Weatherston case.

Mr Temm suggests television coverage of the Kahui twins' murder trial had demonised their mother, Macsyna King. But the Kahui case and Ms King's attitude to the inquiry were notorious in the public eye long before police laid a charge, let alone took the matter to trial. It is unbecoming and unsustainable of the Law Society president to attribute Ms King's image to televising from court.

Elsewhere, he claims television overdramatises hearings, implying defence lawyer Greg King felt misrepresented by television clips of his closing address in the Ewen Macdonald murder trial. Mr King may not intend it, but his closing and his demeanour before juries amounts to dramatic flourish. Television cannot invent such histrionics.

Televising what occurs in the courts, tribunals and commissions of inquiry is a public service. It demands professional judgment and editing. Selections of evidence must be made, as with all media reports, but the law requires fair and accurate coverage. There have been few if any instances where judges have deemed television coverage problematic.

If Mr Temm is looking for ways to improve public regard for the courts, he should start somewhere closer to home.

- NZ Herald

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