Twitter in court: Why not streaming video?

Twitter in court: Why not streaming video?

Summary: Twitter coverage of the AFACT vs. iiNet trial is breathing new life into court reporting. Why don't we as a society take the next step and stream it all live to the internet, video and audio?

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commentary Twitter coverage of the AFACT v iiNet trial is breathing new life into court reporting. Thanks to ZDNet.com.au's Liam Tung and The Australian's Andrew Colley, we're watching the case unfold live rather than having to wait for end-of-day summaries.

Stilgherrian
(Credit: Stilgherrian.com)

People are clearly engaged — "hooked" and "addicted" even — comparing it with watching a football grand final or, more realistically given the pace, a cricket test match.

Given this interest in what would normally be seen as a dry Federal Court case, why don't we take the next logical step and stream it all live to the internet, video and audio? Short answer? It isn't allowed.

The rules that prevent live TV and radio coverage also prevent online streaming. In NSW, section 9 of the Court Security Act (2005) forbids "recording devices" except in very specific circumstances, and they're defined as "any device that is capable of being used to record images or sound (or both)", including mobile phones.

Similar laws apply elsewhere. Judges can grant exceptions, but they're rare.

Maybe it's time to change all that. But to do so, long-standing fears need to be countered.

In 1935, Bruno Hauptmann, a German carpenter, was charged with the kidnapping and murder of Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr, the 20-month-old son of famous US aviators Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

The trial for what became known as "The Crime of the Century" was chaos.

"Flemington [New Jersey], a peaceful town of 2500 with a one-man police force, was simply not prepared to deal with the 64,000 sightseers and 16,000 automobiles that descended on it," wrote Louis Seidman in the Georgetown Law Journal.

"The media and the spectators constantly disrupted court proceedings. Elaborate telegraph equipment was installed inside the courthouse, and although the trial judge prohibited the taking of pictures inside the courtroom itself, his order was openly flouted. Indeed, sound and motion picture equipment was plainly visible in the balcony of the courtroom throughout the trial."

In a decision which remains controversial today, Hauptmann was found guilty, sentenced to death, and went to the electric chair.

In 1937, the American Bar Association adopted Canon 35 of its Judicial Ethics, stating that taking photos and radio broadcasts are "calculated to detract from the essential dignity of the proceedings, degrade the court and create misconceptions". Television was added to the ban in 1963 — although ABA canons have no force in law and by 1983 some 26 US states had already experimented with TV coverage.

Australia's first televised court proceedings came in February 1981, when a single camera broadcast Mr D Barritt SM's findings in the first Coronial Inquiry into the Death of Azaria Chamberlain.

In his 1993 paper Televising Court Proceedings, Ian Ramsay outlined the arguments against televising trials. The presence of cameras might discourage witnesses or even prevent people bringing their cases to court in the first place. Lawyers would be more likely to grandstand. Television can present a distorted view. The TV production process can be a distraction.

These fears are probably misguided. The evidence suggests there's little behavioural change. A 1978 survey of Washington state judges found that once they've actually participated in a televised trial the majority (80 per cent) have a positive view.

"There was unanimous agreement that television coverage is not of itself inconsistent with the right to a fair trial," Ramsay writes.

Now there are cases you wouldn't want streamed. Criminal trials where identifying the accused is part of the argument, or where witnesses are under protection. Cases involving national security. The particularly personal nasties of the Family Court. Anything involving children.

But AFACT v iiNet is a typical Federal Court case, not a criminal trial. Unlike fictional courtroom dramas, it's all documents and procedures and quoting laws and mumbling barristers passing notes. It's a million miles from the mutant circus of Judge Judy — although that's not a real courtroom anyway.

Courtrooms are already fitted with microphones for transcriptions. Video cameras are now unobtrusive and need no extra lighting. Bandwidth gets ever cheaper, as do the means for publishing the documents.

It's our right to watch court proceedings, to see that justice is being done. Why should that right be limited to those who can afford to travel and sit in a courtroom all day, or pay someone to do it for them?

Topics: Legal, Government AU, Piracy, Telcos, Social Enterprise

About

Stilgherrian is a freelance journalist, commentator and podcaster interested in big-picture internet issues, especially security, cybercrime and hoovering up bulldust.

He studied computing science and linguistics before a wide-ranging media career and a stint at running an IT business. He can write iptables firewall rules, set a rabbit trap, clear a jam in an IBM model 026 card punch and mix a mean whiskey sour.

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Talkback

8 comments
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  • corporate V corporate cases should be streamed

    that's the conclusion that comes to my mind after reading your article. And there should be three live counters at the bottom of the screen that tally the running costs for the prosection, the defence and the tax payer.
    anonymous
  • Didn't I see this ...

    ... in a sci-fi movie somewhere?? :)
    anonymous
  • Was it...

    Minority Report?
    The Running Man?
    Fortress?
    Wedlock?
    Judge Dredd?
    ...
    1984?
    anonymous
  • Got it now...

    ...Idiocracy.

    Which is even worse.

    Civil cases, maybe.
    Criminal cases, absolutely not. Especially where the charge is highly emotive e.g paedophilia, child porn. Merely being accused of one of these offences automatically ruins your life, even if you are acquitted, and the last thing an innocent and acquitted man needs is national broadcast of his paedophilia trial by media.
    anonymous
  • So, let's explore the boundaries...

    Some of the situations mentioned by Mystikan fall into the paragraph which started "Now there are cases you wouldn't want streamed". What else should be in there as a "Do Not Stream"? What shouldn't?

    In the particular case of someone accused of being a pedophile their life is already screwed in the current mediascape. As devil's advocate, I wonder whether showing their trial direct and unedited might be a better situation, rather than screeching tabloid headlines reading "MONSTER!"?
    anonymous
  • Volume of information?

    Isn't it more likely that such information will be packaged in much the same way that existing news bites are presented? Without the ability for ongoing access to the video, and the additional ability to drill to specific parts of the video won't most people simply still rely on sound bites prepared by news organisations that already have the resources to cover these court cases?

    Even with the ability to check the context of the sound bite provided, is it likely that many will take this level of concern and effort? Granted, individuals such as yourself will continue to monitor the contexts. Would you expect an extended MediaWatch segment for these presentations?
    anonymous
  • Provide everything, consumer decides

    Now that you've pointed out the volume of data thing, I'm seeing the cricket match. Some will be interested enough to have the continuous live coverage playing in the background, some will merely want the highlights, and others just the result -- and that'll vary from case to case depending on what it's about.
    anonymous
  • Changing the legal system from the outside in

    I predict that examples such as twitter reporting in the iiNet trial will force the judiciary to consider changes in legal process.

    Twitter reporting does have the potential to disrupt court proceedings or bring the justice system into disrepute - but the onus will ultimately fall on the justice system to change to become simpler and easier for a general audience to understand.
    anonymous