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The Trials and Tribulations of Court Reporting in the Social Media Age

Reflecting on a decade of court reporting, James Doleman explains how the apparent formality helps take the emotion out of awful events and focus on the evidence

A Cloudy Day at the Old Bailey. Photo: James Doleman

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It was an old Fleet Street fact that most of the top criminals in London took the Daily Telegraph. This wasn’t because the newspaper shared their worldview – although I’m sure it often did – but because it had the best and, most comprehensive reporting, of the going-ons in the London courts.

They liked to keep up on how their friends, and enemies, were getting on at trial.

For most media organisations though, comprehensive court reporting became too expensive. You needed to have a reporter there every day, sometimes in cases that lasted for months, and public interest often faded after the first week of even the most dramatic trial. The news cycle moves on.

Newspapers may send a reporter to the first few days, but then they mostly buy in court copy from agencies, like the Press Association.

This leads to an unbalanced situation. Because, in our system, the prosecution gets to go first, and their opening arguments and initial witnesses get the most publicity. But when the defence gets their turn, often weeks later, their arguments get less attention. The case is “old news.” It’s no longer on the front page, or, often even on an inside one.

People often ask, “How did he get off?” or question why a prison sentence was so low.

You don’t know because mostly, unless you’ve been following the case very closely, you only heard half of the story.

This isn’t good for our system of justice, but it’s changing.

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The first big Scottish trial I ever attended was in 2010, that of Scottish politician Tommy Sheridan. I got the idea to write a blog post on each day’s events in court. It was all a bit crude, I’d do handwritten notes, then at lunch race to a cafe with internet access, type them out and post them. I knew I couldn’t get in trouble if I just reported everything that happened, and didn’t express any opinion, so the posts were pretty long, but people seemed to like it.

I also allowed a comment section on the blog, a decision, in retrospect, so dangerous I still shudder to think about it.

There have been a lot of advances since then, the 2013 News of the World phone hacking trial introduced the live reporting of trials on Twitter, still my favourite genre of court reporting in the way it captures the drama of a trial in real-time.

Supreme Court hearings are now live-streamed, and the recent initiative to allow the broadcasting of judge’s sentencing remarks has been a success.

Our legal system isn’t perfect, it’s underfunded, and we can all list some the terrible injustices it has been responsible for. 

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High court trials can also seem like a nineteenth-century salon party, that’s certainly how they dress. The Lord sits on his high chair handing down the law, the learned advocates politely skewer “their learned friend,” in the politest of terms.

It might seem like acting, but it plays a role. It helps suck the emotion out of the recital of sometimes awful events. A trial has to be a rational enquiry, with rules on what is and what is not evidence.

The real majesty of the courts though isn’t in the lawer’s garb, or the symbol of the lion and unicorn behind every judge.

This is that, in serious cases the decision that matters is made by 12 people (15 in Scotland) randomly plucked from the electoral register. In a democracy that, many argue, has decayed, the jury system remains, and it can, and occasionally does, bring down even  the powerful who have broken the law.

More openess would lead to more public understanding and scutiny of the system, which would lead to more pressure for improvements.

The historic Court 1 at the Old Bailey still has press benches, narrow little wooden things that are uncomfortable to sit on. They also stil have inkwells, stained with old ink, and scratches on the desk made by past reporters.

We’ll never go back to the hard bitten, seen it all, Fleet Street crime reporter. But working together on how we could, and should, use the new technology so people know more about what goes on, in court it’s done in your name after all. 

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