Paul Smith City Press General News

Will televised courtrooms breed X Factor defendants?


By The Drum Team | Editorial

September 7, 2011 | 3 min read

Paul Smith, the journalist turned PR and media trainer at Citypress, asks if televised court proceedings will lead to show-groomed defendants...

I have a confession to make.

I spent much of my late teens and early 20s in court. Magistrates’ and Crown mostly. Everything from speeding to murder.

Sat with my notebook, wondering if the trial would end in time for my deadline and how I was going to condense the hours of largely tedious repetition into a 350 word page lead.

While court proceedings can be riveting, anyone who has completed jury service or sat there as a journalist will tell you that there’s a lot of information and a lot of sitting around before you get to the exciting bit (apologies if you’ve ever been sentenced but you have to admit that this is the climax everybody waits for).

Which is why the news that a ban on filming court proceedings will now be lifted represents a challenge for all involved.

Major news organisations such as Sky, which has been lobbying for legislation to change for several years, have to demonstrate that they can film unobtrusively and report without sensationalist editing that makes each trial seem like the X Factor final.

If broadcasters intend to stream hours of interrupted footage – reminiscent the Big Brother feed at 1am – then they’ll soon discover why public galleries are often empty for everything other than the Naomi Campbell and Fred West trials.

And this is where the fresh challenge lies for defendants, particularly high profile ones. The presence of cameras adds a whole new element, and potential opportunity, for those in their glare.

Such defendants are already prepped on for difficult questions and groomed not to lose their tempers under cross-examination.

Some will already have been media trained because of who they are and what they have to lose.

But ‘on camera’ training is likely to become even more standard practice for defendants about to face a jury of their peers and a TV audience. A quick Google search confirms this is already a specific product offering in countries where trials are televised.

Apart from the ethics (PR people do have some) it won’t be an easy brief. Media training can help people feel more confident when giving (truthful) answers but an over emphasis on saying the ‘right’ thing, particularly as a soundbite, may not come across well in court and will be captured for posterity.

Rupert Murdoch interrupting his son to declare how humble he felt during the recent hackgate hearings and Ed Milliband simply repeating himself to Sky News are classic examples of otherwise intelligent individuals who have clumsily interpreted their media training.

Whether the presence of cameras fundamentally changes how certain defendants prepare for their court appearance remains to be seen, but it has to be considered as a consequence of letting them in.

When the time comes, media trainers who are asked to help prepare defendants for their televised trial will need to develop an approach to coaching which recognises that this is a subtly different brief to broadcast media training.

Paul Smith City Press General News

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