Reporting the courts: it’s part of civic society

We’ve had a rash of complaints about court cases recently so we thought it worth a reminder of what we can print, and why we do it.

We could couch it all in legal and moral terms but what it really boils down to is this: if you can’t stick to the rules and behave like an arse, the state — and the people — want you to pay a price.

If you’ve just been a bit of an arse, you’ll get a slap on the wrist and some embarrassment. If you’ve been a menace and an arse, you get some heavier legal stuff thrown at you, and the embarrassment. If you’re an unpleasant (or even deeply unpleasant) arse, you’ll get in more trouble and embarrassment ceases to be a factor. As well as embarrassment, there’s a deterrent factor and, today, reassurance for people that criminals do get arrested.

It goes back to the stocks and the pillories. Back in the day, if you stole your neighbour’s chicken — and he didn’t just give you a good hiding — you were fastened into a device that allowed public humiliation, and so everyone knew what you had done.

Friends might come round and be nice, others might throw vegetables at you. (Thank goodness for the invention of newspapers and mass literacy).

But that’s pretty much how reporting the courts works now: the Press is given access to the courts so that you, the public, know who has done what, and that they have been punished for it. It serves as a warning and a deterrent, and there is clearly an element of naming and shaming.

The first thing to remember is that court reporting is not like tax evasion, which is how many people see it.
With taxes, the Government creates statutory controls and then smart accountants work out how they can exploit loopholes.
Court reporting is not like this. We do not, as we are sometimes accused, print what we can “get away with”.

As inferred at the start of this column, the law around court reporting has been specifically created to allow newspapers (and other media) to report what goes on. This is because for centuries, it’s been thought important that people who break the law have the spotlight turned on them.

There’s also the other side: “No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseized of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land”.

The State can’t secretly lock people up, and anyone being threatening with the clink has the right of a fair hearing in front of their peers.

To allow all this to be in public, we are given the right to report the evidence in prosecutions, and protection from people who could otherwise sue: in normal news stories you are not allowed to say what someone is a thief or a pervert, or thumped his wife, at least not without hard evidence.

We are limited as to what we can report. We can only report what was said in open court, and before someone has admitted an offence or been found guilty, we can only report the bare facts of the case — their name and address, the charges etc.

This is to make sure any trial is fair, and potential jurors have not read detrimental material. When you hear something is sub judice, this is what it means.

We have to be accurate. We are given legal protection as long as we report accurately what is presented to open court. By the same token, we can only report what goes before the court.

Accuracy extends to addresses, possibly the one thing we get most complaints about. If a defendant gives an address to the court, that is the address we print.

It might be wrong — people are not in court for being upright citizens, after all — but it is the address we must use. It’s not often people actually lie, but they may give an address without asking permission first.

At the Chronicle we print the full address. Some newspapers choose not to, but they are wrong. There may be more than one (say) John Smith on a long road, and by printing the full address, we identify the correct John Smith. Obviously if your name is Marmaduke Montgomery Braithwaite-Smythe, there’ll only be one of you in the whole town, but we can’t arbitrarily decide whose name is likely to cause confusion and whose is not. That’s not fair.

It’s not true that we sell extra copies or sensationalise court reports. In truth, ploughing through all the court lists is a dull and tedious job, because, in being fair, we have to report every court case. We don’t cherry pick.

Covering the courts is also costly: we send a reporter to court every day (many newspapers no longer do so) and have to pay someone to trudge through hundreds of pages of court listings every week.

We’re not saying it’s easy. You may be deeply embarrassed at your crime, and many victims of domestic abuse are deeply shamed at the case going to court. You may be livid if a friend gives your address in court, particularly if they are vague about what they have been charged with.

The point is: covering the courts is something we have a duty to do. They’re a lot of work and often tedious, but it is part of living in an organised civic state that criminals are identified, and that the legal system is transparent.

We have little latitude in how we report the courts: usually a complainant’s beef is with the defendant or with the criminal justice itself. We are not unsympathetic but the law controls what we can do.

We will do our best to address any complaints, but we are just the messenger.

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