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October 30, 2023updated 31 Oct 2023 4:05pm

Pioneering court reporter James Doleman dies from cancer

Doleman started court reporting when he live-blogged from Tommy Sheridan's perjury trial in 2010.

By Charlotte Tobitt

Court reporter James Doleman has been described as “one of the pioneers of crowdfunded journalism”, “an example of the best of citizen journalism” and a “fearless advocate of open justice” after his death from cancer.

The Scottish journalist was first diagnosed with cancer in 2013 but was recently told there was no more treatment that could help him. He wrote for Byline Times in September about being stuck in hospital because he was deemed too ill to go home but not ill enough to be admitted to a hospice.

Following that piece, someone was able to find him supported accommodation where he spent his final days.

Doleman, known to family and friends as Frank, grew up in Milton, a housing estate in the north of Glasgow. As a teenager in the early 1980s he was involved in the Glasgow Youth CND group, protested against the Falklands War, and joined the Socialist Workers Party of which he remained a member for many years.

He once tweeted that before becoming a court reporter, his other jobs had included: copy reader, nurse, IT salesman, recruitment consultant, hospital admin and travel agent.

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In 2010 Doleman live-blogged the perjury trial of Scottish politician Tommy Sheridan. He decided to do so despite having no formal media law training (although he did read up on contempt of court rules) “partly to see if it was possible to ‘blog a trial’ and partly because it might be useful for the Scottish Left to have as an objective as possible account of events and testimony at the trial”.

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The blog received more than half a million page views and, he later reflected, “raised new questions about the role of social media in reporting the administration of Scottish justice” which he said his work proved could be used responsibly.

In 2013 to 2014 Doleman covered the phone-hacking trial for The Drum, live-tweeting and producing twice-daily reports, and featured in Press Gazette’s list of the best reporters on Twitter. It was the first time a judge allowed a trial to be live-tweeted in this way and Doleman became a pioneer of the medium, alongside Byline Times co-founder Peter Jukes.

In the decade since, the Glasgow-based freelance journalist continued to cover high-profile court cases for Byline and other outlets for as long as his health allowed.

These included the Andy Coulson perjury trial in Edinburgh in 2015, the 2017 Court of Session case over betting giant Coral’s decision not to pay out over a bet on Rangers’ relegation, Julian Assange’s four-week extradition hearing at the Old Bailey in 2020, Tommy Robinson’s contempt of court case at the Old Bailey in 2019 and Robinson’s libel fight at the High Court in 2021.

James Doleman remembered as ‘outstanding court reporter’ and ‘compadre’

Jukes told Press Gazette Doleman was “an example of the best of citizen journalism and an example of somebody coming from a sort of political partisanship into a place of understanding and conciliation”.

The Byline Times executive editor joked that sitting together in the annex at the Old Bailey during the hacking trial the pair were the “bad boys” of the court. But Jukes described Doleman as his “compadre during those tense eight months” who often made jokes but was also a “very responsible person”.

Jukes praised as an example Doleman’s piece for The Drum explaining why Rebekah Brooks was found not guilty and Andy Coulson was convicted. The article set aside any political views Doleman may have had to provide a sober analysis of why the News International CEO was acquitted.

He added that although Doleman was on the left politically and a “crusading kind of character in some ways”, he was also “very fair, very unpoliticised and unjudgmental”.

“He would make friends with everybody in the courtroom. He would always understand two points of view.”

Jukes spoke to Doleman about two weeks ago and mooted the idea of a James Doleman Award for Court Reporting being created in his honour. Doleman said he would like that and Jukes plans to look into the best way to carry this out.

Angela Haggerty was a reporter at The Drum during the phone-hacking trial and was tasked, alongside another colleague, with editing Doleman’s two daily reports.

She told Press Gazette: “The three of us often joked about what a nightmare it was to edit his copy – his pieces were thousands of words long, absolutely jam-packed with information. Every day, for months and months.

“He was an outstanding court reporter. As a relatively unknown name going into a court case covering the alleged criminality of some the most senior figures in the UK press, you’d have thought it would have been intimidating. But if it was he never showed it.

“By the end of the trial he was on first-name terms with the court staff and members of the legal establishment and the UK media alike grew to have huge respect for him. He will be sorely missed.”

The Old Bailey Press Corp – PA’s Emily Pennink, the BBC’s Jeremy Britton, Henry Vaughan at Sky News and Scott Wilford at Central News – said they felt “enormous sadness” at the death of their friend and colleague.

In a statement shared with Press Gazette, the group said: “An entirely self-taught but nevertheless accomplished journalist, James had an infectious enthusiasm for everything he did, from the phone hacking trial to the Julian Assange extradition.

“Even though his path to Fleet Street was not a traditional one, he took his craft seriously, was a fearless advocate of open justice, and a joy to be around.

“He was one of the pioneers of crowdfunded court reporting and often struggled to make journalism pay but that never deterred him in the pursuit of a good story.

“His rich and colourful life experiences brought sensitivity, understanding and depth to his reports.

“James was regularly to be found at the centre of passionate post-verdict debates in Fleet Street taverns. He will be much missed.”

Tristan Kirk, Evening Standard courts correspondent, told Press Gazette: “I first came across James when he came to the Old Bailey to cover the News International phone hacking trial in 2013/14. Although not a traditionally-trained journalist, he had an enthusiasm and a determination that meant that, far from being held back in his reporting, he excelled.

“James was also one of the pioneers of crowd-funded journalism, covering civil and criminal cases in depth and giving them the attention the traditional media may not have been able to (or wanted to).

“A joy to come across, James always had a wealth of entertaining stories, a boundless curiosity about the legal system, and a cheery demeanour. He will be sadly missed.”

Glasgow-based freelance journalist Maurice Smith told Press Gazette he had worked on several court cases alongside Doleman including the Rangers fraud trial in 2017 and Alex Salmond trial in 2020.

Smith said: “James pioneered the coverage of complex criminal trials using social media, particularly Twitter. This is a very demanding means of covering a court case, akin to reading back your shorthand near-instantaneously and in public. James’s reporting was so accurate that many people relied on it as a primary source during high profile court cases.

“Often covering controversial cases that aroused conflicting opinions, he did his job with considerable grace and even some humour. He will be sadly missed.”

Laura Webster, editor of Scottish newspaper The National, wrote on X/Twitter: “Really sad news. James wrote a few pieces for us over the years and I always enjoyed working with him – so friendly and easygoing. A great journalist who will be missed by many.”

Tim Dawson, former president of the National Union of Journalists and now deputy general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, said in a statement: “I became friends with James when we shared the press bench over many weeks covering the Assange extradition hearings between 2020 and 2022. He was an outstanding reporter – able to spot in an instant a telling phrase, and convert it into copy a moment later. He filed twice a day, with reports of great insight and impeccable accuracy.

“Despite a background in revolutionary politics, he loved the machinations of court process, as well has having an astute eye for the characters who propelled proceedings. What I will most miss, however, is his fierce intellect, sense of fun, and loyal friendship.”

Doleman’s funeral will be held at 10.30am on Friday 10 November at Glasgow Crematorium, Tresta Road, Glasgow.

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