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Riot police in Vancouver June 15, 2011. (JOHN LEHMANN/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Riot police in Vancouver June 15, 2011. (JOHN LEHMANN/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Riot TV: When do cameras belong in court? Add to ...

It was called the dawn of a new era, and video cameras were about to become a courtroom staple. Public interest sparked the innovation, and people from Kamloops to Pouce Coupe could see what was happening in front of a judge all the way over on the B.C. coast.

Before Vancouver’s Stanley Cup riot trials became the focus of the debate over broadcasting court proceedings, a B.C. Supreme Court judge allowed closing arguments in the Victoria trial of nine Korean sailors accused of human smuggling to be shown on television more than a decade ago.

The new era that appeared to be on the brink in July of 2000 has been delayed – and then some. Broadcast proceedings remain few and far between in this province. But that could soon change, courtesy of what opposition politicians call Premier Christy Clark’s Riot TV. The Crown will next week make the first of its applications to a judge hearing a riot case for the proceedings to be broadcast publicly, following through on a pledge in the government’s Throne Speech.

The decision could propel the B.C. courts into that new era.

The Attorney-General has said the application is part of the government’s plan to make the courts more accessible to the public, but hasn’t said whether it would do the same with future crimes. Media that have long argued for cameras are wondering if the Crown will take over that role.

Ms. Clark has been lambasted from all sides over the broadcast order – the Criminal Justice Branch dissented until prosecutors were bluntly told to forge ahead. Defence lawyers and political rivals have derided the order as a populist stunt.

But is now the right time for a revival of the debate on cameras in the courts, even if, as critics contend, it’s for the wrong reasons?

“It’s naive to say that it’s totally appropriate to televise every trial. It is appropriate to televise aspects of trials. Certainly, I’m in support of that, depending on the circumstances,” B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Bauman said in an interview inside his third-floor office.

Chief Justice Bauman has stressed he can’t talk about riot cases specifically. Those that have come up so far have been heard at Provincial Court, none have reached Supreme Court, and it would be improper for him to wade in. But he is unequivocal in his assertion that judges need to consider ways to improve courtroom accessibility.

He knows full well what it’s like to step – or more accurately, sit – in front of the camera. Chief Justice Bauman resided over the polygamy reference case, the closing submissions of which were broadcast online last year.

He’d heard concerns that cameras in courtrooms could transform the proceedings into U.S.-style show trials. But he notes that lawyers in the polygamy case did nothing to bring disrepute to the court.

“I didn’t have any concerns,” he recalled. “The cameras were very small. I saw myself turning towards them once in a while. I wouldn’t normally do that. But I got used to it very quickly. I thought counsel were extremely restrained. In fact, I thought they were more restrained with the cameras than they might normally be.”

Premier’s pledge

The morning after the riot, which was sparked by the hometown hockey team’s loss in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final and the seemingly free flow of alcohol in downtown streets, Ms. Clark toured the carnage. “I promise you this,” the Premier sternly told rioters, “you won’t be able to live in anonymity.”

Four months later, before any charges had been laid as a result of the Vancouver police investigation, the Liberal government used the Throne Speech to call for television and radio access to riot-related court proceedings.

“When it comes to the Stanley Cup riots, those guys had no problem doing their crimes quite in public with all kinds of people taking pictures and doing videos all around them, so I think they should have no problem being tried in public either,” the Premier told reporters on Oct. 4.

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