A High Court judge has ruled that cockpit footage from the Shoreham Airshow crash, in which 11 people died in August 2015, cannot be released to the media after a request from the BBC and the Press Association.
Judge Mr Justice Edis said the “benefit of disclosure to the media outweighs the adverse impact on future safety investigations it will have” in his judgment, handed down on Monday.
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The BBC and Press Association, with the support of a “very significant” number of national and local media organisations, requested that Go Pro footage from the cockpit of the Hawker Hunter aircraft be released after it was shown in open court earlier this month.
Pilot Andrew Hill is currently on trial at the Old Bailey charged with 11 counts of manslaughter by gross negligence following his fatal display at the summer airshow.
Hill, 54, of Sandon, Buntingford, Hertfordshire, denies the charges.
In his ruling, Mr Justice Edis said he accepted the “strong presumption in the criminal courts in favour of open justice” and that the release to the media of material used during evidence is an “essential part” of that.
“I accept that the media organisations genuinely want to explain to their viewers, listeners and readers what the evidence in the trial has been,” he added
“I accept that in doing so, they are subject to regulatory codes which should give the court confidence that disclosed material will be properly dealt with.”
But, he said he agreed with concerns that releasing the footage could damage the “just culture of air investigations in which pilots are willing to co-operate, and which produces a safe system of global air travel”.
The British Airline Pilots’ Association and the Air Accidents Investigation Branch had both argued there would be an “adverse domestic and international impact” if the footage were released.
The judge said the “wide dissemination potential” of the footage on the internet, if released, “does add to the concerns of pilots and therefore has a potential adversely to affect their behaviour in future safety investigations”.
He added: “It is important to the maintenance of effective air safety investigation that pilots understand that material they supply to the AAIB will remain with the AAIB, and that there is likely to be a strong reaction among pilots to this material being played on television and newspaper websites and thereafter available forever on the internet.
“This is an adverse impact which needs to be weighed against the benefit of open justice.”
Mr Justice Edis was also persuaded by a further argument that release of the footage could lead to a “diminution in the standing of the AAIB among international air accident investigators with which it co-operates”, saying that “effective international co-operation is obviously vital” in cross-border incidents.
The relatives of those who died also submitted evidence, saying they were concerned intrusive footage should not be disclosed to the media, and that they worried about being exposed to continual reminders of the crash.
Mr Justice Edis said that although responsible reporting using the footage would “probably make the case clearer” to readers and viewers, there is already a lot of film of the incident in the public domain meaning “it is not difficult to attract and retain the attention of the viewer when reporting this trial”.
He said: “Use of the footage is likely to give a news report more impact than it will otherwise have, and I do not dismiss this benefit as ‘sensationalism’ as some of the BALPA evidence does.
“Open justice and proper reporting of criminal proceedings is a mere slogan unless people view or read the reports. It is a legitimate part of the media’s job to try to ensure that their product attracts attention.
“Against that, however, is the fact that there is a lot of footage already available of this disaster which creates abundant impact when viewed.”
Picture: Reuters/Luke MacGregor