Written evidence from Richard Jones


This response to the committee’s call for evidence is a summary of key findings from a research project I have carried out into court reporting, which had a focus on local journalism in the UK. This submission includes a brief overview, followed by sections relating to each of the five terms of reference, and then a summary of recommendations. The main research method used was a series of interviews with court reporters, although these were conducted before the Covid-19 pandemic.




Local journalism in the UK has been described as being in crisis. Local newspapers have experienced years of declining circulations and staff cuts, leading to questions about how effectively those institutions can continue to perform normative functions of journalism. One of those is to report on the courts. Through analysis of 22 semi-structured interviews with local newspaper reporters who cover the courts beat, agency court reporters who supply the local press, as well as broadcast journalists involved in both local and national court coverage, this research helps to establish how the daily work of court journalists has developed amid a turbulent period in journalism, especially local journalism. The research finds that court reporting has been less affected than other news beats but faces a series of challenges related to financial cuts and other pressures. While the local press has become even more essential to the provision of court reporting, a central part of the news medias fourth estate role, those challenges affect the ability of court reporters to perform this function. This research recommends that policymakers consider using a form of public funding to guarantee the future of court reporting at the local level.



How the media’s coverage of courts has changed and what the implications are for open justice


Interview responses revealed a drop in the number of journalists covering the courts. Interviewees said that the local daily newspaper court reporter is now usually the only journalist from any news organisation to regularly attend a court. Court reporters say they will often go weeks or even months without seeing a journalist from any other news organisation or agency in court with them. This seems to be particularly true of magistrates’ courts, underlining previous findings (Chamberlain et al 2019). When there is interest from other organisations such as broadcasters or agencies, it is often the result of those companies following up stories originally published by the local newspaper journalist.


Reporters based in certain larger cities said they would see other journalists slightly more often. But of those who put a figure on it, none had company on the press bench more than half the time. Some journalists interviewed noted this was a significant change that had taken place over recent years as financial challenges affected local journalism. One long-standing reporter said that when they had started covering the courts beat at a major city’s courts complex in the 1990s there would regularly be half a dozen journalists there every day, now that has been reduced to just that newspaper reporter along with a former colleague, who continues to attend sometimes on a freelance basis.


Most local editors continue to use some agency copy (Robins 2016, Thornton 2017). But pressures on newspaper editorial budgets have meant there is much less money for court stories from specialist news agencies and freelancers, reducing the quantity of court coverage in the local press.


Journalists highlighted the way in which court cases can provide a tip-off as to issues affecting society more broadly as a way of furthering the civic function of court journalism. For example, the first time a newspaper may be aware of a particular trend in their local area, such as a new strain of drug or a novel series of scams, could be through seeing crimes brought before the courts. This can lead to further stories on those issues, perhaps written by other reporters. Journalists felt such information was less likely to be volunteered by council or press press offices, which are more concerned with promoting positive impressions of their communities, helping to underline the importance of physical attendance at court by journalists.


As part of the general pressure on staffing levels at local newspapers, the number of in-house photographers has declined. This has had an impact on the working practices of court reporters. The importance of including photographs of defendants, in part to increase the shareability of online and social media versions of stories (Harcup and O’Neill 2017), means that court reporters are often obliged to take these photos themselves. This is known as ‘snatch photography’, in which pictures are taken of defendants in a public street, to avoid breaching the ban on photography within the precincts of court buildings which has been in place in England and Wales since 1925, with limited exceptions (Dockray 1988, Mason 2012).


Taking snatch photos means reporters typically have to walk past defendants as they are leaving the court, before using their phones to take the images. Reporters interviewed for this study accepted there are occasions when they have been left feeling exposed and in physical danger and so may choose to take these photos covertly to avoid a confrontation. One reporter said they informally relied on the court’s own security staff to be aware of what they were doing so they could intervene if necessary.



What barriers there are to the media obtaining information from the courts


Key sources of information for court reporters about ongoing cases include the Crown Prosecution Service and local police forces. Interview responses revealed the relationship between court reporters and the CPS is mixed. The CPS media protocol gives the media a general right of access to materials such as CCTV images, video footage of crime scenes and so on, once they have been presented in open court. Representatives of broadcast media interviewed for this study were positive about the protocol, noting how it had helped in providing material for picture-led TV bulletins.


But many local newspaper journalists said they often struggled to get copies of photos and CCTV in a timely enough way to use in their stories. Some reporters said cuts in the CPS may have been to blame, as they had been forced to work with press officers based further away who seemed to make media relations with local newspapers a lower priority. They said local CPS officials were more likely to move speedily to make these resources available if there was also interest from a regional TV news programme. A lack of visual content on newspaper court stories could affect the visibility of local court stories as they appear online.


Contacts between journalists and the police tend to be formal. Reporters chasing details about particular cases are now invariably referred to a force’s PR team, although certain more experienced journalists were still able to use personal contacts with detectives, as well as senior lawyers and even judges, to gain information and tip-offs. Some journalists pointed to the fallout of the Leveson Inquiry and Operation Elveden as central factors in the growing distance in their relationships with police.


In general terms, in the UK’s jurisdictions, criminal and civil courts have arguably made little effort to be more accommodating to the everyday needs of reporters, at least in a formal fashion (Surette 2011). Reporters can find it difficult to get court documents and lists (Brooke 2010; Perrin 2012) and to overcome a traditional distance between the media and judiciary (Davis and Strickler 2000; Moran 2014), indicating courts have not necessarily reacted to the potential decline in the quantity of court coverage by making it easier for journalists to do their work.


Court reporters often rely on informal relationship with participants such as court staff and lawyers for guidance and story leads (Whitaker 1981; Drechsel 1983). The possibility of being tipped off to a case by someone at the court was regarded by the reporters interviewed as a key reason for physically attending a court building. This seemed to be a more common occurrence for reporters who had spent longer covering the courts in their area, allowing them to build up personal connections.


The ability of court reporters to work within a court building has been affected by the lack of availability of press rooms in certain locations. Courts have traditionally had rooms set aside for the use of the media, but interview responses revealed these have often been given over to other uses because of a decline in attendance by journalists, obliging the remaining reporters to work in corridors. Within courtrooms themselves, journalists also reported press seats being given over to other uses, obliging them to sit in the public gallery, often next to realties of those involved in court proceedings, despite official guidance urging courts to always provide a press bench and a press room where possible (HM Courts and Tribunal Service 2018).



What could be done to make information on court cases more transparent and accessible


A wide variety in practice between courts in different locations was noted. In some courts, staff will provide details such as addresses and ages of defendants as a matter of course, in others a reporter must always ask for this information, obliging them to spend time on this task and taking them away from concentrating on cases. Reporters said they were grateful for the provision of electronic court lists in advance, but would like those from Crown court in particular to be more detailed. The existing system means reporters must spend time cross-referencing the names of defendants with previous lists they have received from the magistrates’ court to try to keep track of cases they have previously covered as they move through the justice system. With lists typically only available the previous afternoon or evening, there is limited time for this. Another issue which constrains reporters is a change in the timing or location of a hearing. They acknowledged that receiving an update every time any case was moved would be impractical, but some kind of more dynamic listings system which allowed for easier searching could help mitigate those problems.


Interviewees also felt their presence in court helped improve the behaviour of court participants, as also argued by Rodrick (2014). That is, by simply being sat in court on the press bench, a reporter can keep the behaviour of others in the court on track. Examples of practices not conducive to open justice cited in interview responses included court staff sometimes not allowing journalists into courtrooms at all, something reporters said was more prevalent at smaller magistrates’ courts not regularly covered by the press, away from the larger complexes in major cities and towns. This suggests the less often journalists attend a court, the less open the practices of that court become.



The implications of social media for court reporting and open justice


The development of smartphones and software including liveblogging platforms and Twitter has made the process of sending live updates from a case within court much easier, creating new forms in which court reporters can publish their work. The guidance of then-Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge in 2011, who memorably told reporters to “Twitter as much as you wish” (Davies 2011) can be considered effective, as reporters interviewed for this study noted few issues with tweeting from court, although there is still occasional nervousness about this at smaller courts less used to seeing journalists.


Newspapers often use liveblogs either instead of, or in conjunction with, Twitter. This allows regular updates on a case to be included on a page on the paper’s website, bringing readers back to the site and boosting clicks, and in turn advertising revenue. Court journalists involved in live-blogging noted these pages had proved particularly popular with readers. This means the reporter must either live tweet the proceedings so those tweets can be embedded into a liveblog, or text updates directly to the newsdesk. This latter technique may be used if a journalist finds it difficult to connect to the internet. Poor connection can also affect a reporter’s ability to send a completed article back to the newsroom, either by email or by writing it directly into a content management system.


Some constraints are self-imposed. One agency journalist noted tweeting the details of a case could alert rivals to it, which may lead to them simply lifting the tweets and trying to turn them into an article without sending a reporter. On the other hand, a newspaper reporter said he sometimes avoided tweeting to protect a scoop from agency journalists, suggesting the classic news value of ‘exclusivity’ remains of great importance.



The effect of court reform and remote hearings on open justice


The courts estate was identified by successive governments since 2010 as a target for savings because of the low utilisation of some courts, and the potential to increase the use of technology (Donoghue 2014, Simson-Caird 2016, Langdon-Down 2016). Perhaps counter-intuitively, interview responses revealed that court closures have helped daily local newspaper journalists continue to cover the courts beat. Not having to travel to different parts of their area to visit different courts, allowing a journalist to cover more than would once have been the case.


Yet a bigger negative impact has been on smaller, weekly newspaper titles. The closure of their local court may have made court coverage uneconomical, because it would involve travelling to a city or town, perhaps to cover a single case of interest to them. One consequence has been to load further work onto court reporters working for dailies as they may be obliged to file to a sister, weekly, title as well.


The use of video links in court is a long-standing practice and the extension of their use has been considered a priority for the justice system (Leveson 2015, Susskind 2019). Video links have been criticised for making it harder for journalists to follow evidence (Chamberlain 2019). Sometimes, there are delays as links are disconnected and established, while court staff are not typically IT specialists.





If the government, legal profession and the media companies themselves are serious about preserving the presence of journalists in the UKs courtrooms, I argue they should consider a variety of steps to make it easier for reporters to do their jobs. 


I favour a review of elements of the provisions included in the 1925 Criminal Justice and 1981 Contempt of Court Acts and elsewhere, as they relate to the use of photography, audio and video recording by journalists within courts. The creation of most such material for publication or broadcast remains banned. Yet the technology and practices of journalism have changed since those laws were introduced. Reporters routinely bring devices capable of all three into court each day in the form of their smartphones, which they are now permitted to use to create and publish text stories, liveblogs and tweets. This has been successful. I propose this be extended to allow journalists to make other forms of media content within court. This would have the twin effects of improving transparency within the justice system and making court stories more visible and potentially more valuable to the local newspaper companies which supply most court reporters throughout the UK. 


If access to audio and photography to court journalists is further developed, then I argue widening the use of video in court reporting is also desirable. It is certainly increasingly possible to unobtrusively film court proceedings. However, it does remain resource intensive. The well-established Court of Appeal video scheme requires an experienced court reporter to monitor proceedings in real time. Such resources are likely to be beyond individual newspapers, or even the major local press companies. I propose an extension of the Local Democracy Reporting Service to fund a team of Crown court video reporters. They could film and make sentencing remarks from notable cases available to all participating media companies on a pooled basis. This could allow greater profile and visibility to the decisions made by judges, especially on trials of significance within local communities. Legal obstacles to such a system were removed by the Crown Court (Recording and Broadcasting) Order 2020. 


A further issue is the unreliability of internet access in court buildings. I suggest the simplest solution would be to give members of the press access to courtsown wifi networks. Such reliable access could also be extended to press rooms, which as indicated above have sometimes been given over to other uses. I argue the existence of such rooms reserved for use by the press should be made mandatory in courts, certainly within Crown courts which are most likely to see the media represented. Press rooms might also assist with a further hindrance to the reporting of courts, that of access to evidence presented in open court. I propose that allowing journalists to work from a secure press room might help ease concerns over giving them access to physical evidence such as DVDs. Allowing court reporters access to digital bundles of evidence would also aid their work, although the extent to which some information within them may need to be redacted could be an obstacle. Making such documents more freely available online, may have undesirable consequences in the hands of bad actors rather than bona fide journalists working in good faith. 


This study has confirmed the easy availability of the basic facts of a case cannot presently be guaranteed, even where a journalist is present at court. I propose that, at minimum, the name, age and address of each defendant, and the charges they are facing, ought to be freely available for every case in both the Crown and magistratescourt. That detail should be available not just on request, but as part of the court lists typically provided electronically, as well as in paper form within courts.


More findings from the research were published in the journal Journalism Practice in April 2021 and are available online here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17512786.2021.1910980



October 2021




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