Courts are journalism amphitheatres – dwindling coverage is not an inconvenience, it’s a crisis

As a sports journalist – and blowing my own trumpet is absolutely not my intention here – I witnessed some of the most momentous finals, showdowns, shootouts, deciders, mouthwatering clashes…you get the gist.

Whatever hyperbole was used to ham up the occasion, there I was, best seat in the house, taking in the atmosphere that only being physically present could provide.

Even though the job description demanded neutral detachment, hacks are only human. Myself included.

While watching the drama and emotion of elite sport unfold all over the world I’ve let out gasps, muttered expletives, bitten fingernails and clenched buttock cheeks with the best of them.

And yet none of the above compares to the experiences I’ve had in the one journalistic amphitheatre that has always, and will always, offer up the best stories of all – court.

To therefore digest the findings this week of a report by journalism academic Richard Jones of the University of Huddersfield, which suggested public funding may be needed to safeguard court reporting in the UK, was alarming.

Jones’ study concluded that regional media organisations like Reach and Newsquest are shouldering the resource burden of covering events at courts – magistrates and crown – virtually alone.

The ongoing contraction of the journalism workforce – not exclusive to these two companies – makes this situation unsustainable, Jones asserted. Some have suggested solutions such as expanding the Local Democracy Reporter scheme or forcing the likes of Google and Facebook to contribute financially. My money would be on the former before the latter.

Two further concerns present themselves.

Magistrates court proceedings

The first is the current vogue for job creation to centre around digital, technical audio-visual and social media skills. This is inevitable given the changing requirements of the industry but if we needed a reminder of just how important traditional core fundamentals and basic professional competency remain, perhaps this issue is it.

Twenty years ago entering the paid ranks of journalism meant starting with general news before exploring any ambition to specialise in sport, business, politics etc. And starting with general news meant going to court. Not every day, but very possibly every week. It was an invaluable way to learn, but so few rookies now get the opportunity.

Secondly, there is the unfeasibility of any gap in court coverage being plugged by hyperlocal, so-called citizen journalists, unqualified in media law. The former audience, as Dan Gillmor christened them, has admirably taken up the fight to preserve community news but clean, legally safe copy from a rape trial can never be part of their remit.

Journalist representation in court has been declining for years. When warned of the dangers of this, media company bosses largely agreed but shrugged their shoulders and spoke about contracting economic realities.

Yet findings such as those of Jones, together with other factors cited above, help focus minds on just how close we may be coming to a tipping point.

It needs averting as a matter of urgency. Not just because of the oft-quoted fact about a transparent justice system being the bedrock of any democratic nation, but also because court reporting retains immense value to journalism itself, and subsequently to readers, viewers, listeners and subscribers. That’s an economic reality right there, you just have to be prepared to play a longer game to see it reflected in profit margins.

Standing or falling on a court assignment is also a development tool for journalists worth its weight in gold. From a human resource standpoint, there is no better investment. Going to court and producing stories rightly remains a key component of our BA Journalism course at University of South Wales, led by a course leader in Craig Hooper who could write a book about his escapades in front of the beaks while an agency man serving the London-based nationals.

It demands (from a legal as well as ethical perspective) accuracy, fairness and balance. It challenges reporters to build contacts among court personnel, it develops confidence in trainees to engage with, even challenge, judges, magistrates and barristers, and also to approach defendants, victims of crime and their relatives for interviews when cases conclude.

There is nothing like court for a journalist. Nothing.

I’d contend all journalists should at some stage have seen the inside of a court (for work purposes). You’ll certainly be very hard pushed to find one who has, and does not believe their career was aided and enriched by doing so.

Most will have a favourite story to tell, most will concede that there were times when they felt as though they were among a select audience at the premier of some cliffhanger film, a film they then quickly realised was for real.

My own introduction to the judicial circuit came at about 10am on a grey morning in October 1996.

As a Gwent Tertiary College student hoping to gain the National Council for the Training of Journalists’ pre-entry certificate I found myself among a class outing at Newport Crown Court listening to a defence lawyer pleading for leniency in the case of a young man, no more than 21 if he was a day, who had become embroiled in a nightclub fight and struck an assailant with a glass bottle.

Newport Crown Court. Pic: WalesOnline

From the appearance of the defendant – who sitting in the dock looked contrite and petrified in equal measure – and his worried-sick family sitting white-faced behind us, this carried all the hallmarks of an otherwise law-abiding, respectable chap having acted wholly out of character in drink.

When the judge returned from a brief adjournment myself and fellow aspiring scribes anticipated at worst a suspended sentence of some sort, along with a fine and a severe warning as to future conduct.

What we got was stunning, in the purest sense of the word.

An 18-month jail sentence was rather pitilessly meted out, and if I used every conceivable word known to man I could never do justice (no pun intended) to the sense of shock and despair that took over that room as his honour explained why he needed to be seen to take the toughest stance possible over such crimes. I can still hear the wails and sobs of the lad’s distraught mother to this day.

It seems callous and indulgent to reflect on such moments as electrifying drama, but of course that’s just what they are to journalists whose job nevertheless is to remain dispassionate whether sitting in a media gantry at a packed stadium or on a press bench in Court No1.

Thereafter, trips to court in my formative years in the job always – always, always, always – yielded the best stories.

Within the first 18 months of my traineeship at the Gwent Gazette in Ebbw Vale, I’d reported on a murder case which followed a teenager being struck and killed by a lorry, a teacher who’d been done for making nuisance phone calls, a bouncy castle operator guilty of abusing children and a council leader who’d assaulted his girlfriend.

My old newspaper, the Gwent Gazette, leads with a court story.

Not even a ticking off by the chairman of the bench at Abertillery Mags for reading The Guardian during one tedious interlude put me off.

The murder case I mentioned saw the defendant eventually get four years for manslaughter, a sentence which enraged the victim’s family. It was deadline day for the Gazette, a Monday, and I remember running out of Cardiff Crown Court and dictating the copy from a phone box to a sub-editor at Thomson House. No mobiles in them days…

Tucked in with that showpiece lead story would have been any number of smaller reports on more trivial cases, from drink driving to non-payment of a TV licence.

I just remember that day in Cardiff, especially, being a win-win-win scenario.

I got my job satisfaction and another piece for my cuttings book (which I’ve still got somewhere), the readers got their story, and justice – notwithstanding the dissent – hadn’t just been done, it had been seen to be done.

If this sequence of events is becoming ever rarer then it’s time lawmakers and the industry itself viewed it as not so much an inconvenience or a consequence of different times, but as a crisis requiring urgent action.