Online only

Court reporting in crisis

COURT REPORTING is an essential part of our social fabric - one that has been whacked by local newspaper owners' cuts, and now by measures against covid-19 infection. So what can be done to ensure that court reporting in the public interest continues?

Virtual meeting

Charlie Dan Jones addresses the Branch

One of our speakers at the September virtual Branch meeting was our Welfare Officer Tim Dawson, also a member of the NUJ's National Executive Council and a former NUJ President. He was joined by James Doleman (@jamesdoleman), who he describes as "one of this country's foremost court reporters"; and by Charlie Dan Jones (@CharlieDanJones), who is currently covering the Julian Assange extradition hearing with the Central News Agency (www.courtnewsuk.co.uk).

For added, if unintentional, verisimilitude our virtual meeting suffered from the same kind of technical glitch that remote court hearings frequently have, with massive echoes and feedback whenever one participant un-muted themselves. So, the following is what your scribe was able to hear. We checked with the participants that we haven't had them say anything that they don't think.

Tim Dawson has had a general sense over many years that court reporting is in trouble. See here for his April 2017 comment piece in the Freelance on how reporting has effectively disappeared from the courts of most county towns. His concern became particularly acute with attempts to report remotely on the Assange extradition hearing at Belmarsh - see here - and then with the covid-19 courts. He hoped the meeting would spark discussion and maybe flesh out thoughts on how the NUJ might take this forward.

Court reporting has of course been am issue since before the invention of the newspaper. The editor of the Freelance was recently pleased to find, courtesy of the British Library, William Penn's pamphlet transcript of his own landmark trial in 1670: The Peoples Ancient and Just Liberties asserted in the trial of William Penn and William Mead. Without that pamphlet, very few would have known of the court's attempt to imprison the jury until they returned a guilty verdict - and we wouldn't have trial by independent juries as a safeguard against state oppression.

In the age of mass literacy, Tim observes, "court reporting became a staple of popular newspapers".

But now newspaper budgets around the UK and around the world are being slashed. In 2016 The Justice Gap - "a magazine about law and justice and the difference between the two" - found that more than half of local papers have no court reporter.

Then came the pandemic. Courts shut down, then attempted to hold hearings over shonky internet connections. "At some level the system that the Ministry of Justice uses to allow journalists to log on to proceedings seems to have been standardised," Tim reported - "but it is very low-tech". For example, that day he had been attempting to follow the extradition hearing of Julian Assange, and he didn't know Assange had made an outburst in court until much later: "what we heard in the next court was a weird mashup of US broadcast news. We spent the rest of the day looking at court technical staff peering into the screen muttering 'is it working?'..."

So what can we do to deal with these seemingly fatal blows to court reporting? Should there be some kind of precept on the justice system to fund public-interest reporting to the public of what it achieves for them? Or should we look at something like the BBC Local Democracy Reporters scheme, but for courts not councils?

And: if we're going to have video in court to allow for socially-distanced hearings, "should it not just be streamed," asks Tim: "there are many countries in what happens in court is on national TV..."

James Doleman

James Doleman

James Doleman got quite a lot of attention in 2011 for daily blogging of the trial of Scottish politician Tommy Sheridan - archived at sheridantrial.blogspot.com. Back then the drill was to post a blog from a note taken in court, then announced it on Twitter with a link. Recently he's been published on Byline Times.

James observes that the covid-19 restrictions have two sides. "A lot of the things that have happened have been good - remote access allows someone to turn up for 20 minutes of a case and then tune out again," instead of having to budget for a whole day. On the other hand, "what covid precautions also allow is for the court to say 'we can't let you in and it's not to do with freedom of the press it's to do with covid' and this is not good."

Charlie Dan Jones

Charlie Dan Jones

Charlie Dan Jones covered the trial of Manchester bomber Hashem Abedi, and that of Johnny Depp. He has previously worked for the Evening Standard and Pink News.

He observes that in remote court hearings "you miss a lot. You can't see the defendant weeping when they are convicted. You miss a lot of the informal communications, and all the discussions between judges and lawyers held in the absence of the jury."

And there are concerns about the justice that is delivered. "There are studies," Charlie reported, "that find that defendants who are seen on video links are more easily dehumanised than those present in the flesh. [For example Defendants on video - conveyor belt justice or a revolution in access? (PDF) from the charity Transform Justice - ed.] These defendants may get heavier sentences," But, as James says, there are upsides.

The justice system of England and Wales was itself in crisis before covid-19, Charlie pointed out: "We have a backlog of half a million magistrates' court cases and 100,000 in the crown court and people are waiting years for trials" - sometimes remanded in custody.

The agency that Charlie is working for "doesn't sell anything to local newspapers any more". Recently "there was a murder at East Croydon station and the Croydon Advertiser didn't send anyone to cover the trial and didn't buy our copy about it."

Court officials can be arbitrary. "I went in person to the 'Nightingale court' near London Bridge," Charlie reports, "and was told that I couldn't go in because the judge was only summing up and that wasn't the important part - only the verdict mattered."

How can things get better?

James observes that in the phone-hacking trial we discovered the power of blogging and live-tweetting. Now that courts (often) allow people to use keyboards on the press bench, these allow instant information for the audience. "We could be on the edge of a golden age of court reporting," because of this development, James believes: "but no-one is paying for it so very few are doing it."

Tim recalled that Peter Jukes got donations for live-tweeting the phone-hacking trial and he got enough to stay in there (see the July 2015 Freelance).

"I sit next to James in court," Tim adds, "and I can't work out how he does it - he's amazing."

Charlie mentioned more problems with remote hearings. "You can't check the spellings of people's names."

There are issues, too, with finding out what trial is scheduled when and where. Court lists are supposed to be public information, but courts have been slow at loading them up to the free public sites. You can get them from a paid-for service - at, for example, £108 per year including VAT. (The Freelance does not know whether these are more reliable. In any case, there's a massive problem with courts listing more cases than they can possibly hear, leading to postponements.)

Charlie responds that he finds "magistrates' courts are good: I get lists by email. The problem is with crown courts."

And what is each case about? James reports that "we're not allowed to look at indictments unless we travel to Edinburgh. There, we're not allowed to take photos of documents."

Tim finds it "mind-boggling that we don't have the technology to make this all seamless". James notes, though, that though "live-streaming everything may sound like a good idea," there are serious issues "with Contempt of Court rules and very necessary reporting restrictions."

Charlie asks us to imagine "that you're a witness in a murder trial - or a member of the jury. What threats might be made against you if you were accidentally identified in a live-stream? Even today, some people outside the UK are getting access to the livestream of the Assange hearings. What if they commit a contempt of court?"

Tim "can think of 101 reasons why it's a bad idea. It would damage balanced reporting. Dialling in for half an hour of a prosecution barrister monstering someone and reporting on that only, and none of the rest of the case..." That, though, is not unlike some tabloid court reports under the present system. He thinks, though, that "there's a kind of inevitability to this. Forty years ago loads of parliamentarians said cameras in Parliament would be ruinous..."

Questions

Co-Chair Matt Salusbury asked: how do journalists get access to cover the rest of the Assange hearing? James replied that "some of us are in a next-door court - usually five of us, so we're socially distanced. Or you can sign up for the livestream and be accredited by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).

James observed after the meeting that "we've been very clearly told by the MoJ that if we pass on the actual links to the court video we get thrown into the Tower of London and eaten by ravens (or something along those lines)." To apply for access and thus to receive this warning, send a message to CrimeCVP@justice.gov.uk.

(While looking for that address to make applications online, we found a guide for courts and tribunals in England and Wales on dealing with journalists: Jurisdictional guidance to support media access to courts and tribunals, which journalists should print out.)

Member David Landau asked: what can we do about the failings of the crown courts? Tim replied that the NUJ has a dialogue with the MoJ. This has covered issues with technology around the Assange hearings/ Through this he had learned that the MoJ has an informal media liaison group (which seems to have produced the guidance to courts mentioned above). Previously only newspaper owners met with the MoJ to drew up guidelines: the Ministry now says that it will include the NUJ.

James recommends remembering to be confident. He describes arriving at a Sheriff's court (very roughly, a Scottish court that carries out functions of a magistrates' court in England and Wales). An official approaches. "The Procurator Fiscal wants to know what you're going to write about," they say, referring to a Scottish prosecutor. "I didn't know," James responds, "but now I am going to write about my questions over why the Procurator wants to know." Then, "of course, I was straight away let into the court."

Branch member Romana asked why isn't there more buzz about the Julian Assange hearings, when instead we have trivia (that day's Daily Mail featured "the dullest man in Britain). Charlie answered: "I think there's just so much news on..." James pointed out that the current proceedings are "almost a preliminary hearing: whatever happens in these, we're going to the High court and probably to the Supreme Court." Charlie then suggested that "Newsnight is saving their half-hour spot for when something explosive happens in court."

David Landau offered "more of an observation than a question, really: welcome, Romana, to the world of British tabloid newspapers". And he asked: "does the NUJ need a policy motion to encourage the union to go to the government to say: "in www.gov.uk you have a word-leading service making information available to the public, why not extend that to the courts?"

But, he mused, still, "how on earth do you pay for proper reporting of that material now?" James responded that "I spent five years crowdfunding court reporting and it worked then - but it's not reliable, so I have no answer." Charlie suggested "putting pressure on the billionaires who have made massive gains from the destruction of news," referring to the likes of Facebook and Google.

Tim summed up his views after the discussion: "a clear priority is to campaign for recognition of court reporting as a public good. We could go for some kind of levy on tech companies - and make sure it doesn't just go to the newspaper groups that have themselves savaged court reporting, such as Newsquest and Reach. The reason I think the BBC Local Democracy scheme is a good thing is that it's a clear recognition by the state that transparent local democracy is important. Then there's the idea in Dame Frances Cairncross report of something like the Arts Council for journalism - see my piece on that in the March 2018 Freelance."