Televising what happens in a courtroom is a brilliant idea for a range of reasons, but the case involving Dr Jayant Patel in Queensland is an unsuitable guinea pig. Dr Patel’s chances of securing a fair trial in Queensland are already slim enough without the Queensland authorities deciding that his trial is so important that it must be televised.
Tom Percy, QC, one of this country’s leading trial lawyers, a director of the Australian Lawyers Alliance, and a lawyer who understands and is not afraid to use the media, told Crikey that “what we need to guard against is the potential public (mis)perception that the trial is being broadcast because Patel is so guilty, and so evil, and the public needs to see it first hand, or that this has never been done before because there has never been anyone this bad before, or who deserved this degree of public pillorying,” Percy said.
Percy supports the idea of televising criminal trials “in principle”, but he “certainly wouldn’t start with this trial”. “The odium already surrounding the case, the number of people directly and indirectly involved and the potential to poison the (probably) already-poisoned well of public opinion on this matter is a real worry. I think it may emerge as a show trial of Nuremberg dimensions,” Percy told Crikey yesterday.
These are wise words and they are borne out by grossly prejudicial comments in the Bundaberg News Mail — which editorialises this morning: “Perhaps the only organisation not celebrating the Supreme Court’s decision may be Bundaberg Hospital, which will have to sit through close public scrutiny of its procedures and policies.”
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There is also this concern. In a case in which every Queenslander has an opinion, what is to stop jurors being spoken to by neighbours, friends, and family about what they thought of this or that piece of evidence or the demeanour of Dr Patel. The decision in this case is a recipe for disaster.
It is a pity that the Patel case is the guinea pig because there are plenty of other trials that could be televised. Televising criminal trials is a good idea. As Western Australia’s Chief Justice Wayne Martin said last month: “Simply leaving the door of the courtroom open is insufficient, of itself, to provide meaningful public access to the proceedings in that court.” Not only that, but if trials were televised it might lead to the community demanding that lawyers stop addressing each other in arcane terms such as “my learned friend” and the legal industry may be embarrassed out of its laughable clown suits — wigs and gowns.
The American justice system has its flaws but because it allows lawyers to hold media conferences and talk about their case, and allows access to cameras in the courtroom, the level of ignorance in the community about how the legal system works in that country is greatly reduced. Australia should head down the same path but for the right reasons. Patel is too risky a case with which to experiment.
Greg Barns is a director of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.