Written evidence from Emily Pennink, PA Old Bailey Correspondent


I am the Old Bailey Correspondent for PA news agency and sit on the executive committee of the Crime Reporters Association.

How has the media’s coverage of courts changed and what are the implications for Open Justice:

In my 23-year career, I have seen huge upheaval in the media industry which has impacted on Open Justice.

Shrinking numbers of reporters on the ground has affected the breadth of coverage at court, particularly less high profile cases.

Yet public interest in crime and the criminal justice system remains strong, as evidenced by the massive response to Sarah Everard's murder.

In recent years, court reporting has been reinvigorated by improved access to pictures and video evidence through the court protocol and the ability to cover cases in real time on social media.

The effect of court reform and remote hearings on Open Justice: 

Over last 18 months, Open Justice has come under threat on multiple fronts.

While the nation rightly focused on tackling the public health crisis, there was a knock-on effect on the ability of reporters to cover the courts.

Remote hearings by video-link opened a window to the courts, but the quality of sound and picture was not always adequate.

Without a standard protocol, gaining remote access was challenging and relied heavily on the good will of individual court officials and judges.

The idea of remote hearings seemed an exciting novelty, particularly the prospect of being able to attend far flung courts.

But in reality, it was very difficult to access the information we needed to report on cases from afar.

For example, during the first lockdown I watched from my living room as some of those responsible for the deaths of 39 migrants in Essex unexpectedly pleaded guilty to manslaughter at the Old Bailey.

It took a flurry of text messages with the BBC's Daniel Sandford and an email exchange with the prosecutor in court, to double check the pleas were reportable and then break the news on the PA Wire.

An application to postpone reporting of the pleas until after the trial of co-defendants would have been virtually impossible to challenge on mute.

Coupled with the uncertainty of accessing hearings remotely, routine checks on defendants' details, charges and reporting restrictions remained a challenge.

As a result, I and many others soon returned to court in person, only to find a different set of problems.

Our press benches had gone.

The need to socially distance jurors had created a bizarre parlour game of musical chairs for other court users.

To avoid debates over whether the press should trump bereaved families or police, we negotiated a compromise with at least one seat allocated to the press in each court where possible.

We made use of video links from the press room and overflow courts and worked with officials to flag up cases that would attract greater media interest so they could plan ahead.

By now, video links were working reasonably well for the majority of plea and preliminary hearings.

They were no substitute for attending trials in person, with a clear view of the witness box and dock.

But due to limited space, the number of reporters allowed into court was severely restricted.

For example, I secured the only press seat in court for the trial of Danyal Hussein for the murders of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman.

I could see Hussein make rude gestures and comments in the dock while my colleagues on video links elsewhere missed out.

All the court reporters covering the terrorism trial of Brusthom Ziamani were accommodated in an overflow court with a video-link to the main court.

In that case, the sound and picture quality was so bad that it was impossible to follow parts of the case and some journalists walked out.

Having relayed our concerns, the technological issue was fixed before the overflow court was used in the Sarah Everard case.

In that case, Lord Justice Fulford ensured there was enough space in the main courtroom for Wayne Couzens' guilty plea and sentence.

Such was the state of anxiety about getting in, I and many others queued for two hours to secure a seat.

There were 22 reporters in the main court plus more in the overspill and on video-link, making it the most attended criminal case I can recall at the Old Bailey.

The electric atmosphere as Sarah's family confronted Couzens and read victim statements in court reduced some journalists to tears.

Our reports would have been incomplete had we not been able to observe how Couzens sat shaking in the dock, unable to make eye contact.

The fast-tracked case of Sarah Everard's murder is an example of what can be achieved.

In stark contrast, many other lesser-known cases have been subject to delays and transfers to other courts.

If justice delayed is justice denied, so too is Open Justice.

Having to wait years to report details of serious crimes can only undermine public confidence in the criminal justice system.

The backlog has made it incredibly difficult and time-consuming for journalists to track cases they are interested in covering.

Finding out what has happened to cases often involves burdening list officers with repeated inquiries.

In the rush to get cases done, there is a creeping tendency of lawyers to refer to documents on the digital case system (DCS) rather than air important issues in open court.

Cases managed administratively rather than in case management hearings are even harder to follow.

If more cases are dealt with outside court in the future, a robust mechanism must be put in place to allow access to the media.

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

Daily court lists could be published earlier to allow time for video link requests, be more easily accessible and contain more useful information such as charges and future court dates.

To help track cases and find important information, accredited court reporters could be granted limited access to the digital case system (DCS).

This simple change would free up busy court staff who have extra duties to manage video links.

A standardised system of requesting access to video links to hearings could be rolled out and made easily accessible.

The impact of social media on court reporting and open justice:

Social media has been a force for good in bringing court cases to a wider and more diverse audience.

Live blogging generates public engagement and interest in the criminal justice system.

It means the pressure to file stories quickly is intense.

While crime reporters usually welcome positive feedback and constructive criticism, they have become vulnerable to unacceptable levels of online abuse.

For example, on the day I was covering Couzens' sentencing, I received a Tweet that seemed to suggest that as a reporter I should be kidnapped and murdered myself.

I understand the concern of the courts that a stray inappropriate comment about a case online might be seen by a juror and potentially prejudice a trial.

While it would be wrong to say this has never happened, experience has shown that jurors are generally very good at following a judge's direction to try the case on the evidence.

October 2021