Monday, October 16, 2017

Justice of the piece: Are bad, bad people getting away with murder because their cases are no longer reported in the local paper?

I CUT my teeth – and my name in the Press bench – at magistrates court in the Essex market town of Witham, just off the A12 between Chelmsford and Colchester.
Every Tuesday I would point my moped north and join at least one, but sometimes two or three, other reporters at the historic courthouse to hear a litany of hard-luck stories, life gone bad or simply people who done wrong.
Forty years later I am back in court watching summary justice 2017 style. Much is largely unchanged: officious officials, bemused members of the public and a singular lack of timekeeping or the sense that anyone knows what is going on.

'Sending offensive and distressing Facebook messages'

We assemble at 10.30 – that’s a reporter from the local paper, two harassed looking lawyers flicking diligently through their tablets (computers, not pills), the clerk, the court usher and me – but nothing much happens until 10.55 when the magistrates file in.
They are two kindly-looking middle-aged men, smartly dressed in dark suits and colourful ties looking all the world like they are queuing up for hospitality at a rugby international. They too are swiping at tablets and at 11.02 we get going, hearing a drunk and disorderly case with no defendant present.

COURT IN THE ACT: Thirteen stories on one
page from court in The Orcadian, including
that perennial court staple 'No insurance'.
This followed by another drunken exploit, this one about a woman who punched a pub landlady. She was in court and after sounding duly apologetic was sent away with a conditional discharge, a sentence that was patiently explained to her.
My fellow reporter tells me the main action is about to follow. He is the title’s only reporter filling the paper and feeding the website and so far he has spent an hour gleaning two downpage stories at best. But his shorthand dances across the page as the court hears how a woman admitted sending offensive and distressing Facebook messages to the owner of a restaurant.

Is covering court sustainable?

The posts were seen by 77,000 people – quite a result by anyone’s standards – and led to her pleading guilty to an offence under the little known Malicious Communications Act.
This story is squirrelled away to appear in the paper, which does not publish for another week. Like many publications, anything that is not ‘out there’ – ie from a press release or the emergency services – is kept for the paper as an exclusive for the dwindling band of £1.30 a week purchasers.
It gets a good show as a page lead and reads well for the 99 per cent of readers who have never been near court. But is it all worthwhile and is covering court sustainable in these times of fewer staff and different demands and expectations of customers?
Some research last year yielded the headline: “More than half of local newspapers don’t have a court reporter.”

'Not essential to have a dedicated court reporter'

Brian Thornton, a journalism lecturer at Winchester University, wrote an article for Proof magazine which draws on a survey of editors of daily local newspapers in relation to court reports in their respective newspapers. Some 57 newspapers editors responded to the survey conducted by journalism students.
Editors were asked to agree or disagree with the assertion by the legal journalist Marcel Berlins that it was ‘abundantly clear that the courts are no longer being properly reported’. More than half of editors agreed, including 11% who agreed strongly. More than four out of 10 editors reckoned it was not essential to have a dedicated court reporter.
Less than half of editors said that their papers had a dedicated shorthand court reporter (44%) and more than half admitted that they had relied on a police press release in the absence of having their own reporter in court or else drawing on an agency report (55%).
“The fact that the media is engaging less and less with the everyday workings of the criminal justice system means that journalists are increasing unaware of what actually happens in such important settings as crown courts or coroner’s courts,” says Thornton.
“I would argue that this ignorance is dangerous because it spreads to the public. If the public aren’t being informed about what’s happening in courts, how can they be expected to know?”
Adding to the debate is Guy Toyn from agency Court News UK who says the number of serious stories going unheard is a “tragedy” for the democratic process, adding regional papers not covering even big cases were neglecting a “central, civic function of the press”.
He said this was “not only a dreadful shame because people aren’t being informed, but a tragedy for the democratic process as a whole”. Said Guy: “Court reporting does take a long time, and a local paper can’t really sit around day-in, day-out and do it any more.”
'Justice operates essentially unseen and unheard by
the public': Andrew Langdon QC
Even the legal profession is weighing into the debate. Andrew Langdon QC says court reporters are in decline and may soon be “largely a thing of the past”. He says members of the public are getting “no professional narrative” of the “way we arrive at justice”.
Langdon, chairman of the Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, wrote in a legal magazine: “Due to the decline in court reporters, justice operates essentially unseen and unheard by the public.
“Court reporters, and especially court reporters from local newspapers, have been declining in number for years and may soon be largely a thing of the past.”
He adds: “The large majority of cases, although conducted in public hearings up and down the land, and although producing outcomes that often dramatically affect the lives of the citizens concerned, operate essentially unseen and unheard by the public.
“The way in which the outcomes are arrived at is thus something of a mystery for the large majority of the uninitiated public. Worse, outcomes are often supposed to be influenced by factors that are by and large mythical.”
Langdon highlights what could become a problem for all concerned: “Increasingly and perplexingly, into the vacuum drop one-sided reports via social media, not from professional journalists, but from aggrieved parties who, like single-issue campaigners or nefarious pressure groups with their own agenda, have access to mass communication and so can feed a narrative that often grossly distorts reality,” he says.
Phew. Not sure how much reality was distorted on my visit to court, but you get the idea from m’learned friend.
And as for Witham Magistrates Court I’ll leave the last word with the estate agents: “FIVE PLOTS REMAINING - reserve now to avoid disappointment. The Old Magistrates Court is proving a popular new development, with over half now sold…”

VERDICT

I love a good court story – but I see too many bad court stories, or no stories at all. I even once devised an excel spreadsheet formula to write an automated court story just to show how predictable many of them had become.
Like much of journalism writing an engaging court story – within the confines of what can legally be reported, of course – is a skill that can be learned, but is honed by doing it.
The NCTJ’s Media Law Court Reporting module continues to be popular among students and trainees showing both an appetite for the craft and a continued demand from editors for court reporting expertise.
My friends at The Orcadian diligently report every case at sheriff court and other papers just run the ‘results’ as provided by court staff. I suspect the answer may be somewhere in the middle. It’s not easy to pick and choose when all that is provided are names and charge, but specialist reporters will know the difference when they see it.
Court reporting can be a time-consuming gamble, but probably one that’s worth taking even in these headline-a-minute digital days.
  • A full version of this story appears in the October issue of PJ magazine

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