The last 18 months have been an effective public-service warning against the media’s involvement in sensitive, high-profile court cases. In 2022, a glut of celebrity trials, in both the UK and the US, drew global attention and revealed something ugly about how our culture interacts with the justice system, and how it perceives objectively grievous harms.
It didn’t matter whether the cases concerned serious allegations (such as Ryan Giggs’s alleged assault of his ex-girlfriend) or slighter issues (such as the defamation case between the Kardashians and Blac Chyna or Rooney vs Vardy, also known as “Wagatha Christie”), the media – traditional news and social media – became obsessive. Endless coverage made light of alarming claims, and treated these trials less like painful lawsuits between real people and more like extended editions of reality shows.
Among these media circuses, none was worse than the frenzy that engulfed Johnny Depp vs Amber Heard. This stood out from the others not just for its complexity, length and the public’s long-standing fascination with the ex-couple, but because the trial was filmed. For more than a month, proceedings were live-streamed to audiences daily, accruing a total of 83.9 million hours watched. On social media, videos attacking the celebrities in question – particularly Heard – gained billions of views, largely created from clips uploaded directly from the proceedings.
The horror show of Depp vs Heard became a cautionary tale for how media voyeurism in the social media age can turn a sensitive case – one already primed for outsized attention – into its own content vertical, with seriously negative effects. Countless articles have covered the ripple effect this trial will have on domestic abuse victims; Channel 4 even made a documentary about the trial, one episode of which was dedicated to the online abuse Heard continues to experience. Despite the professed lessons learned from these trials and their chilling aftermath, there appears to be an appetite for even more.
A movement is growing in the UK to introduce cameras to courtrooms. Last summer, just two months after Depp vs Heard finished, TV cameras were allowed into a criminal trial for the first time in Britain (only to film a few minutes – specifically of the judge handing down a verdict and explaining their reasoning). Last month, it was reported that the Ministry of Justice was considering a move to allow “US-style TV coverage” of UK trials. This debate came to a head earlier in June with Prince Harry’s appearance in the phone-hacking court case against Mirror Group Newspapers. This 100-person lawsuit, which includes the prince, alleges that the group’s newspapers unlawfully gathered information between 1991 and 2011. Prince Harry’s statements, however mundane, have been seized on and dissected online, while the courtroom illustrations have become a source of widespread fascination. Sky News even went so far as to hire an actor to play him giving his testimony:
In the phone hacking case, Prince Harry told the court that every single article played a destructive role in his life.— Sky News (@SkyNews) June 6, 2023
There are no cameras in court so as part of a special programme Sky News has recorded what was said by the Duke, played by an actor.
Watch ☟ pic.twitter.com/fxUx0ngOt5
Many people have argued the UK is behind the times in keeping cameras out of courtrooms, as if inviting them in might quell the fanatical media storms that follow. They make the claim that this would improve transparency – that there is a public interest argument, even an obligation to the public to give them as much access to trials as possible.
But what benefit is there to giving us zoomed-in, live-streamed versions of high-profile legal proceedings? We are well aware of what is going on in these courtrooms already: we get dozens of write-ups of the most notable cases a day, with the details of testimonies and blow-by-blow accounts published alongside front-page stories in tabloids as well as broadsheets. If you really wanted more, there’s even a public gallery you could sit in. The Prince Harry recreations are only possible because of how much detail is presently available. What transparency do so many people feel they’re missing?
The answer – and, more importantly, what a camera provides – is content to turn a standard media cycle into addictive, can’t-look-away entertainment. In the UK, we can’t see the tiny shifts a witness makes in their seat; someone’s tone; whether a defendant seems comfortable, or overly so; a barrister’s demeanour. We lose the details that could lead to endless TikToks debating the cadence of someone’s speech, TV panels on which guests debate a witness’s believability, or Twitter threads where people demand the public “decide for themselves” (as we saw with Depp vs Heard). We already get ample information about major trials, but we are spared the B-roll that will largely be fodder for broadcast ratings.
This obsessive voyeurism, and the desperation to get more, does little beyond feeding the worst impulses of an already-frenzied audience – as well as a media that is all too eager to turn often complex trials into premiere, bottom-line-benefiting entertainment. Even in the absence of cameras – as Sky News evidenced – the media will still scramble to manufacture something that looks eye-catching and salacious. The idea that interest will be appeased by giving people even more, risks confusing public transparency with sensationalism.
[See also: When Prince Harry fell to Earth]