YouTube justice UK style

This post was contributed by Professor Leslie Moran, of Birkbeck’s School of Law and Barbara Villez, Visiting Fellow at Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, Professor Université Paris 8

The UK Supreme Court has launched a new communications initiative.  As of late January 2013 you can watch, on demand, videos of judges in the highest court in the land delivering summaries of their judgments. Who is the audience for these five minute programmes? Is it the hard pressed smart phone/iPad generation law student, lawyer or legal advisor? No; far from it.  The Court’s press release announcing the launch of the YouTube initiative suggests the target audience is much wider. Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, is quoted expressing his hope that the videos will broaden the audience for the Court’s work. Are they the next hot internet viral sensation educating the public about the work of the highest court in the land? The short answer is ‘no way’. Are these videos a ‘must watch’ offering valuable insights into the decisions of the court? We have our doubts about that too. But they do make fascinating viewing.

The visual challenge of judicial activity

Judicial activity has been described as ‘visually challenging’. These videos do much to confirm this and do little to meet that challenge. Five minutes watching someone with their head down reading out loud from a set of papers is not great telly by any stretch of the imagination. The way the images are put together adds to this static quality, with each video being made up of two basic types of shot. Throughout, the camera’s presence is unacknowledged by the speaking figure.

There is little in the way of props or costume to attract the eye. Judges in the UK Supreme Court don’t wear special robes in court. These judges look very much like ordinary business men. There is only one female judge, Lady Hale. In contrast to this there is much to distract the ear. The microphones, built into the judicial bench, not only pick up the voice of the judge but also the endless rustle of their papers.  Coughing and other background noises regularly punctuate the proceedings. All tend to obscure the words spoken by the judge.

Adaptation from written texts

What are you going to get out of watching the highest judges in the land reading out loud? The judges, so they tell us in the videos, are ‘giving the judgement of the Court’.  But law students and other diligent viewers beware; ‘giving the judgement of the Court’ is not the actual opinion of the court. What you actually get is an image of a judge delivering a speech adapted from a press summary published on the Court’s website to accompany the judgement itself. Written initially by the judicial assistants, the judges approve these summaries and then adapt them for the ‘live’ presentation in Court. The judgment is a written text. And it is written to be read, not spoken. It is available on the Court’s website, as is the accompanying press summary.

As the videos show, the adaptation of the press summaries into scripts for a courtroom performance is problematic. Despite the rearrangements, these scripts are not easy to speak. Judges stumble over the dense text and struggle to incorporate quotations from the trial judge into oral delivery.

The videos do, however, have much to offer. You not only hear the voice of the judge but also the accent which is a marker of their social class. The folding and refolding hands of a courtroom assistant on screen behind the talking head of the judge add an unexpected physical ‘commentary’.

Television trivia?

But are many of these points indicative of the dangers of putting courts and judges on TV? Are we in danger of getting caught up in what some describe as the trivia of the moving image? Our first response is that image making and image management are central to judicial authority. As the 2008 Judicial Studies Board, Framework of Judicial Abilities and Qualities reiterates time and time again, all the core judicial abilities and skills have to be ‘demonstrated’ and communication is central to this demonstration of authority. The courtroom is one long established context in which these abilities and skills have been performed and communicated. Props, wardrobe, voice and the body all have a role to play in demonstrating and communicating judicial abilities and qualities. Video is a new communication format, context and set of challenges. It has characteristics similar to and different from both face to face courtroom encounters and the more formal and enduring qualities of the text of a written judgment.

The current YouTube videos are a return to primitive television. They are simply the result of the presence of the camera in the court. The camera appears to be no more than a tool that records an event. However as the simple editing shows, the record is subject to a degree of manipulation. The resulting image is not just mediated by the technology but has been subject to judicial control. If essential information about the judgement, the press summary and the full judgement are already available what extra is provided by these judicially approved moving images? It may well be just that there is a camera in court and that camera is a symbol of openness, transparency and a form of accountability.

But is that going to satisfy a public that lives in a culture saturated with sophisticated video imagery.  One problem with them may well be that the public is too sophisticated for primitive television. Viewers have expectations acquired from countless hours of watching complex moving images, generating high levels of visual literacy. The primitive visual aesthetics of the UK Supreme court’s YouTube videos are likely to be a real turn off. If the judges of the UK Supreme Court are going to use video available via the Internet as a means of communicating, then they may have to think harder about the moving image that it is being made and adopt a different approach to the use of the moving image as a means of communication.

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