That was the name of a seminar organised by the Society of Editors and hosted at the offices of the Telegraph Group in London, on 18 January 2018. But the crisis of the title seemed to have more to do with the state of local journalism and the decline of the local press, rather than anything happening in the courts.

Paul Magrath, Alice Twaite and Judith Townend were there, representing the Transparency Project.

The seminar was advertised as a discussion about the dire state of court reporting in this country, and that was why we went. But what really seemed to be up for discussion, before a distinguished panel drawn from parliament, the law courts and the press, was how best to reinvigorate the declining local newspaper industry by funding better coverage of local courts and council meetings.

There was a good deal of nostalgic reflection on the old days when cub reporters cut their teeth on local papers and knew their way about the magistrates’ courts, and a good deal of pious hoping that the likes of Google and Facebook would step up to the plate and start funding the journalism their services exploited. But some concrete proposals did emerge, including plans for two working groups, engaging the talents of some of the many journalists, commentators, academics and publishers who attended.

The event was chaired by Ian MacGregor, President of the Society of Editors and Emeritus Editor of the Telegraph. The keynote speakers were John Whittingdale MP, formerly Secretary of State for Digital Culture Media and Sport, and Lord Judge, formerly Lord Chief Justice. They were joined on the panel by Ian Murray, Executive Director of the Society of Editors, Tristan Kirk, Courts Correspondent of the London Evening Standard, and Ed Owen, Head of Communications at HMCTS.

The Panel

The panel spoke first, one by one (and all of them, incidentally, men: so perhaps we should call it a ‘manel’). And then there was a question and answer session, with comments and suggestions from the floor.

LORD JUDGE kicked off with recollections of his grandfather, publishing the only independent newspaper in Malta, from which he learned how important it was, in a country governed by the rule of law, to have an independent press. Liberty of the press was the birthright of every citizen, of the whole community. But newspapers had to survive in the commercial realities of the real world, not just on charity and goodwill. Local newspapers were under threat, for various reasons.

It was to help local press court reporters that the Judiciary and the Society of Editors had produced, in the past, a decent written guide on the law on reporting restrictions in the Crown Court and Magistrates’ Courts. If they encountered an obstruction, reporters could not afford to instruct and wait for the arrival of counsel to argue the point in a local court: they needed something to rely on, then and there. But such a guide served no purpose if reporters did not normally attend court.

The presence of the press in court was a necessary ingredient of the administration of justice. As the ancient Roman writer Pliny had observed, when judges sat in judgment they were themselves on trial. The press were there to report what happened, even if it was to say the judge had fallen asleep, or report what he said, whether foolish or wise. Justice was not a cloistered virtue. It was not done behind closed doors. It had to be seen to be done. Yet how many papers now had someone identified as a court reporter? Someone there to cover the courts, day in, day out, who could pick up trends or monitor how the police and the CPS were doing their work, and hold them to account. Likewise local councils: they decided matters of great public interest and importance, and it was the duty of the local press to cover them.

JOHN WHITTINGDALE MP began with some gloomy figures about the decline of the local press, and of the quality of their coverage. Things that used to be an absolute requirement, such as fact checking, ‘legalling’, subbing, were not happening. Content was going straight to page, and quality suffered. Local populations were no longer being informed. The government was keen to devolve powers, create locally elected positions, such as mayors in major cities and police commissioners, but it was difficult to finding reporting of how they had performed.

It was the same with court reporters, who were as likely to be seen as a zebra in any courts apart from the Old Bailey or Royal Courts of Justice, according to Nick Davies’s book Flat Earth News. Recent surveys had evidenced the decline. But what were the solutions?

One thing that might help would be to open up the courts to broadcasting, but that was no substitute for professional reporters sitting in court. But a scheme whereby the BBC could support local journalism by funding 150 local reporters out of licence fee money, with content shared among media organisations had proved successful and might be extended, for example by encouraging Google and Facebook to provide similar funding. Otherwise, proceeds from the social media levy which they would have to pay could be used.

IAN MURRAY said he had begun as a cub reporter shadowing his weekly newspaper’s senior court reporter, and learned how the local press played its part in ensuring that the community was being policed well and justice was being served on its behalf.  Reporters who only got sent to the bigger courts or the juicier cases would miss out.

All reporters should be trained in the law on reporting restrictions and know when they could and couldn’t report on a case. It was understandable that the courts might close their doors to the press if the papers didn’t send reporters to walk through them. The family courts were now much more open than before, but how many went into them? It was a case of ‘use it or we’ll lose it’.

TRISTAN KIRK said the Standard was proud to have a reporter dedicated to the courts. Unfortunately, court reporting was not seen as a central part of local newspaper reporting any more. It was time consuming and there was no guarantee of getting a story. So papers ended up relying on police press releases, but there was so much more to a case than what the police would tell you. Sitting in the magistrates’ court was a great way to get a story.

But as a result of not having that many reporters coming, court staff became confused and did not know what to do or how to deal with them. Prosecutors would not give you their names, the court clerk would not give you access to documents. Guidance for court staff was needed, and proper training, so they could help the press. Conditions for journalists at courts desperately needed to be improved. They should have a press bench in court, if not a separate press room, as they used to have, and something as basic as access to wifi.

ED OWEN confessed that he too had once been a journalist, covering the courts and the council meetings for a local paper. HMCTS was not neutral in respect of the decline of court reporting. It had a serious impact and affected public confidence in the system.

HMCTS had a 60 page document given to staff containing guidance on managing the relationship with the media. But work needed to be done to encourage better working relationships between court managers and the local press. A working group had been set up to look at the guidance and look at issues to encourage and facilitate effective media access for reporting the court. That would eventually become a standing group that might cope with bigger issues. The first meeting was the following day (and later news items from the Society of Editors confirmed that the society was represented on it).

Under the HMCTS Reform programme many existing services would be going online, with a corresponding reduction in physical court hearings, and it was essential to make sure such processes were still rooted in openness and transparency.

Research, debate and conclusions

There followed a short report from PHILIP CHAMBERLAIN, Head of School of Film & Journalism at the University of the West of England, on a pilot research project which looked into coverage of magistrates’ courts in Bristol, in which it transpired that during a given period less than a tenth of the cases that could have made decent news stories had actually been reported. (Out of 220 cases heard in a week, some 30 could have provided ‘page lead’ stories, yet a reporter was only present for one morning and reported just 3 cases.) Also, the CPS issued a list of cases competed in that magistrates court which was reprinted by the local paper – but it only covered about a tenth of all the cases.

Then the debate was opened up to questions from the floor, with the caveat that participants should, where possible, offer solutions. Not all did. There were gripes about how changes in bail conditions, and poor communication by courts was hampering reporters’ efforts.

Competing with the many others who put up their hands, the Transparency Project representatives managed to get two and a half substantive points across.

First, to seek reassurance that reporting of the family courts, with the unique set of challenges and opportunities that posed (and apparent crisis of public confidence), were embedded in the conversations and initiatives under debate, such as any extension of the BBC scheme to court reporting. And a plea for the 2011 guidance on media coverage of those courts (‘Media Access and Reporting the Family Courts’, also published by the Judiciary and the Society of Editors) to be updated.

Second, to point out that observers in court were not confined to the press and could include representatives of NGOs and academic researchers. There should be access to information which might not necessarily have news value. There was wider data that should be shared.

The key proposals we picked up from this event:

  1. That the BBC-funded local democracy reporters service, within the wider BBC local news partnership financial commitment over the next nine years, be extended beyond local council accountability to funding court reporting too, with the same benefits for media access to the content generated across the sector. The scheme is for generally commercial publishers to employ reporters who then share content with a wider number of publishers.
  2. Facebook and Google might contribute to the local democracy fund, either voluntarily or even via the social media levy, as is being explored in other contexts.
  3. Increased broadcasting from the courts, following pilots already done in some courts.
  4. The existing HMCTS internal 60 page guide to court staff should be further updated and promoted where court staff are not already following it, to improve access to courts and to enable reporters to be more proactive.
  5. The Society of Editors would be launching a new Working Party with HMCTS represented on it and invited email contact about other membership.
  6. An HMCTS Working Party had already been set up for embedding media access in the public interest within the reforms project. It would [and, we subsequently learned, did] hold its first meeting the following day. The Transparency Project will be seeking to join this group.

Our conclusions

No doubt these proposals would all be very beneficial, but would they solve the ‘Crisis in Our Courts’?

It would no doubt be wonderful for traditional local presses to be (perhaps only temporarily) revived with imaginative external funding schemes, but that seems an unlikely long-term solution to a business model, based on local advertising, that no longer works

Even if that did work, and the newly funded publishers wanted to run the copy, the notion that lowly paid trainee reporters are suddenly going to flock to the regions to bring about a renaissance in traditional court reporting, in a justice system that is undergoing a fundamental shift away from local physical court hearings and into the digital realm, stretches our credulity. Financial support for local press cannot be the whole a solution for the crisis in court reporting. Subsidy of the commercial local press won’t of itself lead to improved court access, reporting reach and quality – the answer to real public understanding has to be broader than this.

The seminar was disappointing in other ways, too. It was obvious as soon as we asked about it that coverage of the family courts was not part of the story the panellists and promoters wanted to tell. We might as well have been asking about coverage of courts in Scotland or Europe. Yet the public interest in comprehensive and accurate reporting of the family courts, particularly the life-changing decisions made in care and adoption proceedings, could not be more acute. If anyone was looking for a ‘crisis in our courts’, the difficulty of achieving fair and accurate reporting in this area would be as good a place as any to start. So perhaps that is something the working parties could be persuaded to consider adding to their agenda.

Secondly, we felt some of the complexities of modern court reporting were being overlooked, such as how much digital data should be shared and to whom, and the social and legal implications of online data sharing. There are risks, but also opportunities for transparency, with the transition to digital case management and dispute resolution. This is something the new working groups should also consider, and sooner rather than later. We flagged it up in our response to the original ‘Transforming Our Justice System’ consultation: see  Access to information should not be an after-thought in plans for ‘transforming our justice system’

However, the fact that the seminar took place at all is surely a welcome first step. The relationship of the courts and the press has not always been an easy one. The fact that judges, politicians, journalists and civil servants can all sit together to discuss these issues, or some of them, and set up working parties to keep the discussions on the table, is surely a good thing. We will continue to watch with interest, and would welcome any opportunity to be more constructively involved.

Subsequent coverage

The HMCTS working party was the subject of a press release by the Society of Editors:   Society backs HMCTS project to promote press access to courts

This was later reported by the Law Society Gazette as though the whole thing was a HMCTS initiative: HMCTS promises to promote media access

The Press Gazette has turned its attention to the social media levy proposal, in Court reporting seminar hears support for social media levy to help fund public service journalism

The Telegraph itself published a piece by John Whittingdale, summing up what he and others had said at the seminar: The decline of local newspapers is bad for democracy and justice. Google and Facebook have a duty to halt the slide

Our featured image is a photograph of the Telegraph’s colourful sofa coverage, with a glimpse of the busy newsroom behind.