The world of criminal trials is slowly catching up with the modern era. The Ministry of Justice has announced it will partially overturn a 100-year-old law and allow cameras into English and Welsh courtrooms for the first time. The press will now be able to apply for video footage of a judge passing sentence over convicted defendants. This has been lauded by some (mainly broadcasters) as a landmark moment for judicial transparency. And it is certainly an improvement. But given how murky the system still is, the decision is hardly the ‘radical’ change that some are suggesting.
The public’s understanding of the criminal justice system – the most invasive, coercive arm of the state – is mediated almost entirely by journalists. So attempts to expose the mechanics of banging people up is obviously a good thing. Broadcasting a judge’s complete sentencing remarks will allow us citizens to understand a little better why the scales of justice have tipped in a certain direction. Currently, what gets published relies, in quite a large part, on what some time-short journalism graduate is able to decipher from their tatty old shorthand notebook.
But really the system needs a complete overhaul. For open justice to function properly, those who write about the court system need access to far more information than they are currently given. At the moment, some magistrates courts are essentially media dead zones. While these lower courts are required to publish daily lists that outline basic information – listing defendants’ names, charges etc – that requirement is often just ignored. If you get a summons to somewhere like Camberwell Green Magistrates then your case has been all but anonymised.
It’s also worth bearing in mind just how costly court reporting is for the news organisations that fund it. A decent court reporter will be able to find three good stories a day, if they’re lucky. That requires meticulous planning, pulling together information from reams of different documents, calling press offices and understaffed court administrators. There is no central database where the public can track Crown Court cases. No place where the most basic elements of a case can be easily found. At the High Court, where a bit more information is made accessible, journalists have to pay per minute just to look at documents that are supposed to be in the public domain.
And that’s just finding the interesting cases. Once in the courtroom itself, accessing basic case summaries or evidential documents is all but impossible. Woe betide the reporter who attempts to understand a complex fraud after coming to it for the first time midway through the trial. Whether you’re given any steer at all depends entirely on the mood of some poor underpaid barrister.
Tristan Kirk is one of the last dedicated court correspondents employed directly by a national newspaper (almost any court story you read now will have been bought from agency reporters rather than a journalist at a named paper). Kirk shares this frustration:
‘No one should be under any illusion that the simple act of allowing filming of sentencing remarks of a judge can atone for the problems that members of the media face in trying to cover the criminal courts.
‘Reporters face a constant battle for access to documents, images and video clips that have been aired in open court and should rightly be put in the public domain.
‘Information that would help the media to understand a case in its preliminary stages, such as a prosecution case summary or a defence basis of plea, is not provided to reporters as a matter of routine, despite the obvious benefits to open justice and accuracy.
‘And it is a depressing reality that journalists are often denied access to the most basic details, such as the charges that a defendant faces.’
The real absurdity is that Kirk actually helped write MoJ guidelines on how court staff should deal with the media. His comments are a testament to just how averse to scrutiny our criminal justice system is.
For example, if a reporter approaches the Met Police or the Crown Prosecution Service looking to access evidence shared in open court, they will invariably reply to the email demanding that a form such as this one is filled out:
Apparently a better quality scan wasn’t available. Compare that document to the US where case material is uploaded and made automatically available for the public to access.
Once published, court stories suffer yet more problems. Advertisers often insist that their product isn’t promoted next to a story about rape or terrorism, the idea being (presumably) that such a move would create a negative association between, say, anti-ageing cream and vicious stabbings. These blacklists mean that the stories themselves generate less income for the publisher. One of the most important forms of public interest journalism is basically subsidised by Love Island gossip.
All this might sound like the moaning of a slightly jaded former court reporter. And you’d be right to think that. But the public, let alone us journalists, have a fundamental right to know why their fellow citizens are getting locked up. At the moment, that right is being denied.
Gus Carter is a former agency court reporter at CourtNewsUK.co.uk and an assistant online editor at The Spectator’s Coffee House blog.