The lord chief justice wants to spare us details of horrific crimes. His good intentions are doomed.
When I was a jobbing freelance writer one of my regular gigs was to preview and rate films for a cable TV channel. My duties included counting profanities, noting incidents of violence, sex and drug-taking - ‘at 23’07’ lead characters apparently share a marijuana joint’ - and suggesting what cuts might be needed for general viewing. As my tastes don’t usually run to flesh-eating zombies, the job broadened my cultural horizons.
I was also shocked by some of the material that some producers apparently considered appropriate for ‘15’ or even ‘18’ audiences, especially when it included sexual violence, and I recommended that at least two films not be shown at all.
So far as I can tell, painstakingly watching and re-watching episodes of sex and violence didn’t corrupt or deprave me, though it did make me reluctant to see anything more edgy than ‘PG’ at the cinema.
But I was reminded of that job yesterday when I watched the lord chief justice explain to the House of Commons Justice Select Committee why it would be problematic to televise sentencing hearings. He referred to two recent whole-life sentences imposed for horrific crimes, apparently inspired by online pornography, the details of which were too distressing to put in the public domain.
To reinforce his point, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd offered to share the judgments in question with the committee, presumably assuming that its distinguished chairman Sir Alan Beith MP and his colleagues are themselves not going to be corrupted by their content.
While there isn’t the slightest reason to doubt his lordship’s confidence, the gesture came over as a little anachronistic. The assumption that highly educated professional middle-aged men (the members present yesterday were all men) can cope with material that might deprave ordinary members of society reminded me of the days when The Daily Telegraph would run far more salacious stories in its small print than the News of the World would dare on its front page.
Or even of the notorious ‘wife and servants’ argument in the Lady Chatterley trial.
The quis custodiet paradox is one reason why well-intentioned efforts to restrict the circulation of distressing details read out in court are probably doomed. Another, also referred to in yesterday’s proceedings, appears in Sir Brian Leveson’s report on efficiency in criminal proceedings published last week. Enthusing about the potential of virtual hearings, Leveson’s report proposes that ‘consideration should be given’ to making the electronic court record generally available ‘at least for a limited period’.
Not for the first time in his career, Leveson’s choice of words suggests that he doesn’t, quite, get the internet. First, if electronic records are created as a matter of routine, the need for open justice requires them to be made ‘generally available’ as a matter of routine. And once the data is out there, the idea that its re-use can be restricted to ‘a limited period’ is pure moonshine.
Clearly our efforts to increase transparency in the judicial process are going to come up against limits: information that might be useful to amateur bomb-makers is an obvious candidate for restriction, as well as distressing details of sexual crimes. But in the web age I think we have to assume that the nasty stuff will get out, despite the efforts of well-intentioned censors.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor