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September 25, 2023

News industry failings have led to ‘secret justice’ plan for rape trials

News agency boss says industry should "wake up" to importance of court coverage.

By Jon Harris

News of proposals by the Law Commission to ban journalists from rape trials should come as a massive surprise to no one in the journalism industry.

For whilst crime reporters will quite rightly bleat and wail about ”secret justice, a lack of shorthand qualifications among reporters, corporate greed by those who run media organisations and a general apathy or even fear of courts by newsrooms has nurtured an ever-creeping trend in draconian reporting restrictions being imposed by judges and magistrates.

The fact is we are guilty of bringing this latest trouble on ourselves.

Failure to arm our reporters properly with the right tools, coupled with the dumping of court cases in favour of cheap copy and bigger profits plus a worrying willingness by newsdesks to kowtow to unjustified complaints from readers, has emboldened some on the bench to make unprecedented and sometimes very questionable decisions about what we allowed to know from public court hearings.

And unless we start recognising this situation, it will only get worse.

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Courts, in particular the magistrates courts, are among the best sources of news and provide endless copy – all of which by their very nature are in the public interest due to them being dealt with at hearings funded by the public purse.

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They tell many stories about real life we all can relate too whether it be neighbour disputes, relationships or motoring misdemeanours – unlike much of the highly spun celebrity drivel readers are often currently fed. 

In years gone by, no courtroom was left uncovered whether by a local paper staff reporter or a freelance journalists funded through financial retainers from the regional press. And much of what they wrote went on the front page too.

But as bean counters and corporate greed took over the newspapers, court reporting was passed over as too expensive in favour of office-based ‘headset journalism’ and free PR fluff – and all the retainers for freelances and agencies were axed overnight.

To make matters worse in 2016 the National Council for the Training of Journalists made the quite bonkers decision to declare 100wpm shorthand – a basic tool for court reportingoptional for its students rather than compulsory.

As a consequence, many NCTJ undergraduates fearing endless, difficult and boring shorthand tests chose not to do the module for an easier ride in college – and newsrooms across the UK were witness to a new breed of journalist wholly unqualified to cover the courts properly.

So-called progressives will always argue shorthand is the stuff of dinosaurs – but to this day it is still a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment to independently tape record court hearings.

So if you want informed, interesting and legally compliant court copy, 100wpm shorthand is all we’ve got.

Some court press benches left sitting empty

Whilst some regionals will focus on covering major trials like murder, sadly many press benches at our courts today – especially the magistrates court – are now largely empty with some JPs reportedly not seeing a journalist in six months.

And as the UK’s media behemoths clock up millions in profits whilst paying out paltry fees to contributors, newsrooms are seemingly only too happy to accept free anodyne police or council press releases on court cases – sometimes at the expense of the freelances who actually did bother to cover them.

Some newsrooms are even happy to field very limited details from a court register – and are thus reliant on a listings officer to not make an honest mistake. Sadly others will sometimes delete whole stories obtained from a court sometimes without consulting the reporter first if the (often vexatious) phone and email complaints they field are abusive and aggressive enough.

Currently, nearly all reporting restrictions imposed at the magistrates court will occur without challenge from the press – simply due to us not knowing about them.

Some restrictions involving the anonymising of children are usually wholly valid but many others ban the press from reporting legitimate details like the addresses of defendants – thereby increasing the risk of the innocent being wrongly accused in their neighbourhoods. 

If restrictions are eventually challenged by the press on a later occasion, it will usually be down to one local reporter arguing the toss using a copy of McNaes Essential Law for Journalists – and they will have to go against one or maybe two paid-for lawyers.

Yes, there are still some instances of multiple media organisations employing an experienced barrister to challenge reporting restrictions in high-profile cases.

But that did not stop the press being banned from identifying any of the murdered children in the nurse Lucy Letby trial at Manchester whilst only this week a policeman charged with murder in London was granted anonymity.

Elsewhere we have a so-called single justice procedure court in which speeding cases are dealt with behind closed doors with no press allowed – whilst in Northern Ireland there is a growing trend to anonymise sex offenders who claim they might self-harm if identified – with seemingly only one reporter waging a solo campaign against it.

There are no doubt numerous other draconian court restrictions out there – too many to list in fact. But unfortunately once the precedent has been set, legally it is very difficult to get round it.

Press and courts relationship ‘better than ever’

Ironically relations between the press and the courts are currently better than ever in my experience.

We are granted better access to court lists and information, and there is far more respect for journalists from court staff now than previously. Recently in Manchester several senior judges hosted a meeting with a group of journalists – such was their keenness to engage with us.

But this apparent new-found era of cooperation still requires much more engagement from the journalism industry as a whole if we ever want greater transparency in our courtrooms going forward.

It shouldn’t be down to the same old faces going into bat for a free press whenever some new draconian plan is dreamt up by the powers-that-be.

If we really want to halt the threat of “secret justice” then the journalism industry as a whole should wake up and realise our courts are an invaluable source of public interest journalism – and to stop taking them for granted. 

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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