The Depp/Heard trial provides the perfect argument against broadcasting court proceedings

There are better ways to educate the public than exploitation

Michael Spratt

I have tried my best to avoid the Jonny Depp and Amber Heard trial, but it has been simply impossible to avoid the media coverage, much of which has been poisonous, mocking, and unfair. It permeates every social media platform, leaving no room for escape from the pernicious content.

The ease of access to live video of the proceeding has created an atmosphere where bizarre and toxic conspiracies flourish. No, Amber Heard did not snort cocaine on the witness stand. She did not plagiarize her testimony from the Talented Mr. Ripley.

But more sinisterly, the shareability of the trial proceedings has fanned the flames of misogyny. Last month BuzzFeed wrote about the TikTok courtroom, where videos under the #JusticeForAmberHeard hashtag have over 21 million views, but those under #JusticeForJohnnyDepp have over 5 billion views. 

I don’t know for sure who is telling the truth. But the internet seems to have jumped to some unreasonable and very troubling conclusions.

And we should all be disturbed that the justice system has become a content factory for armchair YouTube pundits, conspiracy theorists and social media personalities.

Even the “legal experts” who have capitalized on the trial to grow their subscriber count have added little to the conversation. The dissections of what some have described as a brilliant cross-examination (it wasn’t) of Heard by Depp’s lawyer Camille Vasquez do little to advance real legal education.

We live in a cold and depressing world when jokes about domestic violence are a trending topic. Do we need to remind ourselves that domestic abuse allegations should never be the object of mockery?

Thankfully, this is not a scene that can play out in Canadian courtrooms. Outside the Supreme Court of Canada, cameras have rarely been allowed into our courts. In fact, in Ontario, the Court of Justices Act prohibits photographs and video recording of court hearings or people entering or leaving the courtroom – the same holds for screenshotting or rebroadcasting trials conducted over Zoom. 

But with millions of eyes glued to the Depp trial, some ask if it is time to let live TV into Canadian courts.

Those in favour of Canadian court TV make a seductive argument, many of whom have a financial interest in that expansion. The justice system needs to catch up to society, they say. Our courts are already open to any member of the public. Video broadcasts are only a modern manifestation of this open courts principle.

These arguments, however, don’t hold up to scrutiny and ignore the practical difficulties and potential damage caused by broadcasts.

Broadcasting of court proceedings would increase the likelihood of contamination of the evidence, witnesses may not be able to avoid media coverage, and the quality of their evidence may suffer.

Cameras will inevitably impact how witnesses testify. The proverbial bright lights of the camera may heighten anxiety and increase the reluctance of witnesses to testify at all. And cameras can lead to revictimization for those forced into the witness box. South of the border, Depp’s trial and litigation strategy at its core seem more like revenge litigation than a quest for justice.

Testifying can already be a harrowing experience. Cameras may feed the public’s appetite for immediate informational gratification – but the quality of that information will suffer.

But what about education? The public will better understand our justice system, so it’s all worth it, right? Call me a cynic, but I bet that only the most high-profile, most outlandish, most sordid cases will ever be broadcast. So, we may better entertain, but not better educate, the public.

After all, what have we learned from the Depp trial that we could not have learned from a gossip magazine?

The list of negatives goes on. Monitoring how media complies with broadcast rules will take up scarce judicial resources. Lawyers may grandstand or play to the camera and be tempted to litigate their cases through the media.

I pity the poor, innocent accused who is acquitted only to find himself a YouTube star. And I fear for the victimized woman who has the most intimate details of her life laid bare for mockery on the internet.

There are better ways to educate the public and open up our courts than to give media corporations and content creators free material for their broadcasts.

Our courtrooms should be devoted to searching for truth, not cheap entertainment.

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