Last week Kenneth Clarke announced that the 85-year-old ban on filming in British courts is to be lifted, allowing judges’ sentencing to be broadcast, starting with the court of appeal with further scope to include the crown court. Jurors’, witnesses’, offenders’ and victims’ remarks are not to be captured in order to avoid jeopardising a fair trial. The announcement has sparked debate regarding the apparent utility of this information for the general public; those in favour argue that the broadcast of verdicts will act as an educative tool into legal practices and “improve the transparency in public services.”
However, recent high profile cases have illustrated that courtroom broadcasting can lead to highly publicised spectacles of legal dramaturgy and in turn irreparably tarnish the reputation of the accused even if they are acquitted. This poses the question: can a ‘not guilty’ verdict really exist when the whole world is your jury?
The trial of Amanda Knox for the murder of Meredith Kercher shows just what can happen when footage of those involved is easily accessible; the press feast on the material, publishing sexed-up, sellable stories, without the threat of injunction. We live in a society that glorifies the celebrity and where reality television reigns supreme. High-profile televised court cases are therefore bound to turn into pantomimic performances where the general public are persuaded to pick a side and boo and hiss when prompted by the press. ‘Foxy Knoxy’ — we’ve all heard the nickname, and it’s not just the tabloids that use this epithet to grab attention; a recent article published online by The Telegraph asked “Amanda Knox: Who is Foxy Knoxy?”. The question is rhetorical; the name itself depicts a sex-obsessed, seductive, party girl, whose “good looks and enigmatic behaviour thrust her to centre stage.” The notion of performance here is clearly implied.
Only friends and family can truly answer the question, “who is Amanda Knox?” But most people have an opinion, and whether negative or positive, our opinions are solely based on what we’ve seen on TV or read in the newspapers. The reaction of the crowds outside the court on 3rd of October 2011 when Amanda was acquitted of all charges after four years of imprisonment, clearly illustrated how emotionally involved the public had become in the case, booing and name-calling as the Knox family left the courtroom; the public had evidently passed a judgement of their own and ultimately this is the jury that Amanda Knox will now have to face for the rest of her life.
What the British and Italian media have done to Amanda Knox is nothing compared to the complete obliteration of Casey Anthony by the American press. Casey Anthony stood trial for the murder of her 3-year-old daughter Caylee Anthony this year and was eventually found not guilty. Following her release she then went into hiding after receiving death threats and being declared “the most hated person in America”. The Orlando Sentinelwebsite (the primary newspaper of Orlando, Florida) features not only videos from the courtroom, but also videos of visits from Casey’s family, her reaction when the remains of her daughter’s body were found, the audio of her first telephone call from the Orange County jail, letters written and received by Casey and text messages from her phone released by the state attorney’s office. The release of these documents into the public sphere via the media surely constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy and prevents Casey Anthony from leading a normal life following her not guilty verdict.
My argument is not that Amanda Knox or Casey Anthony are innocent; what matters is that the jury declared that both of these individuals were not guilty of the crimes for which they were tried. However, due to their coverage in court and the lack of restrictions on what the media can print, they are now so infamous that their ability to live normal lives, as ruled by law, is impossible. Does this indicate devolution of power towards the people, who thanks to such freedom of information, are able to form affective judgment of their own, thus rendering the courts verdict somewhat redundant? Although the introduction of cameras into courtrooms in Britain currently only includes the filming of judges verdicts in the court of appeal, it suggests that we are moving in the direction of the American media and ultimately this could lead to the degeneration of the justice system into another form of primetime entertainment for the public.