Justice must be done and be seen to be done

The phrase above – credited to an English judge 90 years ago – has been trotted out frequently in the recent debate about allowing television cameras into the trial of Oscar Pistorius.  It is a phrase that worries me since it is often used by people who are trying to dress up an ignoble sentiment and make it appear more noble.  Other seemingly noble phrases have been ‘the public have a right to know’ and ‘in the public interest’.

Public viewing of trials is a long-standing tradition.  Historically this has been by having a public gallery in the courtroom so ordinary people can watch the proceedings; to that has been added journalists who can attend the trial and report on it (though with strict rules about how they do so; ‘sub judice’).  The argument from the TV companies – accepted by the judge albeit with conditions – is that TV cameras are simply another version of giving ‘the public’ access to the court.

But when this phrase about justice is used we move too quickly to the second half – ‘must be seen to be done’ – and skip past the first part – ‘must be done’.  My worry is that we risk jeopardising the doing of justice: a fair trial in which neither witnesses nor defendants are unduly pressurised, in which evidence is weighed reflectively by judge and assessors, and in which the steady and often dull and slow process of law can take its course.  How do you behave when you know that the most sensational 30 seconds of what you say will be featured in the evening news?

Are TV companies more concerned about the fair presentation of the trial or in boosting their ratings?  After all, it is difficult enough to give a balanced report in the 3 minutes allocated to the story; needing to include the sound-bites of video from the day will make that task harder rather than easier.

And what of the public interest?  Well, just because the public are interested that does not mean it is in the public interest.  For example, the public are interested in how much was spent on Jacob Zuma’s house and Kim Kardashian’s house.  The former is definitely a matter of public interest; the latter not at all.  It is true that people are excessively interested in the Pistorius trial: but does it really serve the public interest of good justice to take an already sensitive trial and turn it into a media circus?

It might be argued that people should be able to make their own judgements about the case.  But should we really be encouraging people to do that – and challenge the court’s judgement – based on their consumption of 30 seconds of TV?

This temptation is one of the many topics covered by Pope Francis in his recent document ‘The Joy of Evangelisation’.  “In the prevailing culture, priority is given to the outward, the immediate, the visible, the quick, the superficial and the provisional. What is real gives way to appearances.”  Do we really want our justice system turned into an episode of ‘Idols’?

(You can get extracts from Pope Francis’ writings delivered daily to your cellphone.  Just SMS the word JOY to 31222 – charge R4 per week).

Mr Raymond Perrier
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