The Supreme Court’s decision to post videos of judgment summaries on YouTube from tomorrow is great news. It will open up the court to a new audience and build a useful resource for students. As an imperfect practitioner in the art of reducing complex legal arguments to a paragraph or two, I personally look forward to seeing how our most distinguished justices go about hacking case summaries down to five-minute videos.
There’s another reason why this move is timely: it will get the judiciary used to the concept to their words being copied, edited, mashed up and rebroadcast in ways they would not approve, because this is what happens to footage in a global digital arena.
The topic is very much on the agenda as parliament debates provisions in the Crime and Courts Bill that will allow the broadcasting of parts of criminal trials.
The government’s stated plan for courtroom cameras is cautious - to allow the broadcasting of judgments and legal arguments from cases before the Court of Appeal and judges’ sentencing remarks only in the Crown court. Rightly, there is no intention to place witnesses under the additional pressure of appearing on TV. However even these modest proposals have caused alarm in some quarters, with calls for the government to act to prevent sensationalist or misleading reporting.
Sorry, but such calls are unnecessary and wrong.
Unnecessary because the press – at least those parts of it under the jurisdiction of English courts – is already subject to two separate sets of legal pressures to report proceedings accurately. One set arises from the Contempt of Court Act with its stringent restrictions on reporting while proceedings are active, the other from the law of defamation, under which the protection of absolute privilege applies only to fair and accurate reports of judicial proceedings, published contemporaneously.
Notoriously, Britain’s unruly and irreverent press has form for pushing its luck when it thinks it can get away with it. However, dealing with this is a matter for existing rules, not for new ones.
In particular, it is not the government’s job to rule on how cases are reported once concluded. If the result is sensationalism, fine, so long as a definitive version of judgments is available as easily as the junk. And this is where YouTube comes in. I hope the justice system makes more use of it.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor
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