Review of system that's caused no major concerns over fairness and justice should not clamp down on coverage.

More than 200,000 people a day are tuning into a dedicated South African television channel providing 24-hour coverage of the Oscar Pistorius murder trial. The case is the first time live cameras have been allowed inside a criminal courtroom in South Africa and saturation coverage is being provided both there and around the world.

Details of the case are gripping the Rainbow Nation's 51 million citizens to such an extent that school children are reportedly discussing blood splatter patterns at the dinner table. Crime writer Margie Orford has described the spectacle as "Kardashians meet OJ Simpson".

But the trial is not theatre, a movie or a whodunnit. It is about accountability for the tragic death of a young woman brutally killed in her prime.

So how does the legal system balance the public interest in open justice against the privacy of a grieving family and the right of a defendant to a fair trial - particularly in the age of blogs and a 24-hour news cycle?


It's not only South Africa which is grappling with these issues. Debates about media court coverage are also taking place in Australia, Canada, Britain and other countries.

New Zealand's discussion about whether changes are needed to the rules governing the broadcasting of court proceedings was sparked by then-New Zealand Law Society president Jonathan Temm in a speech in September 2012. Mr Temm criticised the media's coverage of trials and said much public debate engendered by the reporting of the Clayton Weatherston, Ewen Macdonald and Chris Kahui murder trials had been both ill-informed and misinformed.

Particular public discomfort was caused by televised footage of family members appearing as witnesses in the Macdonald trial. Who could fail to respond to the distress of the family members and to query the justification for such intrusive pictures ?

However, what most people probably didn't realise was that members of the Guy family and other witnesses have an absolute right to be protected from such coverage. Clause 11 of the In-Court Media Coverage Guidelines 2012 states that witness protection is available as of right to any witness who seeks it, apart from the accused or official witnesses.

The Guy family members who gave evidence only had to ask not to be filmed so they could be identified, and the media would have been required to do that. On top of that, there are two additional layers of protection in clauses 4 and 12.

Much of the public debate over media court coverage which has taken place recently has accordingly been based on a lack of information about the protections which already exist.

Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias in August 2013 announced a review of in-court media coverage, including television coverage, photography and sound recording by mainstream media.

Last month, a consultation paper was released as a basis for debate. The document provides a history of rules governing media court reporting, compares this country's rules with overseas regimes, reports on a survey of judges and sets out options for reform, while noting that it has not yet been decided that change is necessary.


Among the options for change suggested are the following:

• One fixed camera covering the bench, counsel and the witness box, with no use of close-ups.

• Either banning the filming of witnesses and defendants or, conversely, reducing protections for witnesses and defendants.

• Returning to an old rule that media reports of trials be at least one minute long and equal time be devoted to both sides.

• Establishing a formal monitoring body to ensure rules are followed and coverage is balanced and measured.

• Courts organising filming and making footage available.

• Banning television cameras and photography in court.

• Streamlining and improving current processes.

• Providing greater freedom for audio recording.

• Introducing specific protections in relation to the filming of young people appearing in the High Court.

Submissions on the paper are invited and a draft report will then be published and submitters given a further opportunity to comment, before a final report is forwarded to Dame Sian.

New Zealand's rules governing in-court media coverage go a lot further than those in many similar countries. In Britain cameras in court were banned until October, when broadcasters were given the right to film legal arguments and judgments. The British Government in future intends to allow sentencing remarks in the Crown Court to be filmed. The Supreme Court already streams proceedings live on the internet.

However, the real question is whether changes to New Zealand's rules are needed. Careful and extensive protections are already built into guidelines.

While it is clear some judges and lawyers remain uncomfortable with the coverage, 93 per cent of judges surveyed reported there had been no instance of court recording leading to issues over a fair trial. In the remaining 7 per cent of cases, there had been no case in which a hearing had to be aborted.

The rules have been in place for 19 years and have worked well. They appear to strike an appropriate balance and it is difficult to see that major change is required.

Attempting to turn back the tide and return to a more restrictive regime seems unlikely, in an era of transparency and instant access, to be successful.

• Submissions on the consultation paper can be made to the Media Review Panel by June 1, 2014 -

Catriona MacLennan is a barrister and journalist.