Jenny Marra Role of the Media in Criminal Trials (Speech in the Scottish Parliament )

23 October 2012  

I am pleased to close this debate on the role of the media in criminal trials on behalf of the Justice Committee.

As the convener, Christine Grahame, said at the start of the debate, advances in social media and the internet alone have had a significant impact on the way in which criminal trials are reported and have provided major challenges for jurors in carrying out their functions responsibly.

Although the Justice Committee’s work in the area so far has been limited to a round-table session, we felt that it would be useful at this stage to explore some of the key themes arising from the evidence session and written submissions further in the debate.

I am glad that we have done so, as the contributions from all sides of the chamber have been extremely valuable and the committee will use them to shape any future work that we undertake on the role of the media in criminal trials.

I will touch first on the Contempt of Court Act 1981, which is the principal piece of legislation relating to contempt of court in Scotland.

The committee heard from witnesses that the act probably works quite well for broadcast media and newspapers but is completely unsuitable for controlling social media and the internet.

We cannot expect everyone who uses blogs and Twitter to be experts in contempt of court legislation in the way that the print and broadcast media must be.

We have heard from members that it is crucial that we find the right balance between freedom of speech, an open press and the rights of the victims and witnesses of crime to their privacy.

The witnesses at the Justice Committee were divided on whether the televising of criminal trials was a positive development in opening up scrutiny and assisting in the administration of justice or whether it was unwelcome and would lead to the sensationalising of criminal trials and potentially even put the accused, the acquitted, victims or witnesses at risk.


Margo MacDonald: I have one query. The member said that we cannot expect everyone who uses the social media to be as aware of the law as others. I thought that ignorance of the law is no excuse and that, therefore, we might expect everybody who comments on legal matters to have a knowledge of the law that they are using.


Jenny Marra: That is precisely the reason that Twitter is not generally used in courts at the moment—people do not have the detailed knowledge of the law that the broadcasters and journalists have to be trained in.

We would have to look very carefully at that if we were going to expand the legal provisions.

We heard today that any further consideration of the role of the media in trials must be balanced against the needs of those who unwittingly find themselves involved in the justice system, who are often very vulnerable members of our communities.

Victim Support Scotland expressed concern—as Bob Doris eloquently did today—that trials are already traumatic events for victims and witnesses and that any further media involvement could affect the quality of the evidence that they supply or even their willingness to supply evidence in the first place.

That concern was backed by the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland.

As my colleague Mary Fee said eloquently, we must avoid the prospect of a Jerry Springer or Judge Judy scenario, in which real and traumatic experiences are broadcast in the name of entertainment. In Scotland, we pride ourselves on having a civilised justice system that would not allow voyeurism.

We must remember that in the debate.

In announcing a fundamental review of the policy on the use of television cameras in court, the Lord President has recognised the challenges in televising criminal trials beyond specific aspects such as sentencing. We await further details of the review, and the committee will consider its outcome.

I will sum up some of the very good speeches that have been made.

Graeme Pearson reminded us that it is difficult to encourage witnesses to come forward to give evidence in court.

If their image was to be transmitted back into their community, we would have to consider that carefully.

Roderick Campbell made an excellent speech.

He drew our attention to the Anders Breivik trial in Norway and he certainly made me think again about the role of television in such big trials.

He advised us to proceed with caution but not with closed minds, given how useful that televised trial was to the people of Norway earlier in the year.

He also asked for a review of the legislation that regulates what the media can print about court proceedings, which would be timely.

Joan McAlpine made a number of interesting suggestions, including that of having accredited bloggers, as the minister said.

The committee will certainly want to look at that idea, which draws on the experience of James Doleman in the Sheridan trial.

I was also interested in her suggestion of a verbatim report of court proceedings, similar to that in Parliament.

That is worth considering.

Mary Fee reminded us that, often, some of the most vulnerable people in our communities are in our courts.

She warned us against the voyeurism to which televising trials might lead us.

She drew our attention to the evidence from Steve Raeburn, the editor of The Firm, that televising trials would elucidate the changes in the law on double jeopardy and the possible forthcoming changes to corroboration.

Having sat through several criminal trials in the High Court and the sheriff court, I was confused by the evidence that sitting all day to watch such trials could possibly elucidate those changes in the law.

We need to scrutinise that evidence properly before making any decisions.

Colin Keir raised the important question whether the television restriction should be relaxed in appeals. The committee will certainly want to consider that.

He made an astute and empathetic observation on the demeanour of accused people in court—guilt could be inferred across the medium of television, as being in our courts is a traumatic experience for many people.

This is an appropriate place at which to close the debate for the committee.

Wherever we decide to take the issue, we must remember the importance of striking the balance between protecting the administration of justice and ensuring the freedom of expression of our media in Scotland. I thank members for their valuable contributions in today’s committee debate


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