Court Reporting: Nothing but the truth

Scales of Justice of Old Bailey court - © Ben Sutherland

WATCHING THE START of the Stephen Lawrence trial, plus a murder trial with a recording of someone killed with a red hot poker, brought the crime world too close for (dis)comfort.

That’s the nature of court reporting, that fellow journalists and I experienced at the Old Bailey Central Criminal Court in St Paul’s, London.

Guy Toyn, News Editor and Director of Court News UK, described the excitement of having the “whole of crime laid bare to us” and how it’s the “hardest possible news you can get” that is “knowing the unknowable”.

He spoke with a glint in his eyes as he claimed it’s difficult to beat the drama of a courtroom where someone can leave within moments or spend the next 30 years or so locked up in a prison cell. He said he had never come across a journalist who had left life as a crime reporter.

Having worked as a reporter for 20 years and covering two to three cases a day, Guy has witnessed the changes to the nature of reporting over time. The general public have become desensitized to extreme violence and prefer stories that are novel and strange.

He said, the crime reporter used to be “king”, armed with contacts and the freedom to claim huge expense bills at the expense of his or her craft.

He said his first job of the day would be to go to the local police station, where the officer would open his book showing a record of crimes and give him the names and addresses of all the essential contacts.

Nowadays, journalists usually have to go through press offices, who hardly have as much inside knowledge about the cases. And most newspapers do not even employ a crime reporter.

Open justice

Guy stressed the importance of reporting on an open justice system. There is no point if a trial cannot be reported to the public. He said, some barristers earn around £700,000 year and are often the “most intelligent and most able people you can come across”.

They need to be aware of all the fine details about the present case they are representing as well as all other cases in the coming weeks.

But we should also have the “rights of audience” to pick up on when the barrister gets it wrong and uphold the principle of open justice.

Court artists also play an imperative role in capturing the courtroom scene. I was surprised to find out that they are not allowed to sketch whilst in court; they are only permitted to take notes and then create their masterpieces outside of the courtroom.

I met artist Priscilla Coleman, who created her strikingly accurate sketch within minutes of leaving the first day of the Stephen Lawrence trial on Monday:

Priscilla Coleman sketching the defendants of the Stephen Lawrence murder case © Monica Sarkar

The cloud that hangs over every crime reporter’s head is being found to be in contempt of court. The BBC advise school reporters to steer clear of reporting from the courts.

The slightest mistake could see them fined hundreds of thousands of pounds or spending two years in jail, hopefully not in the cell next door to the defendant of the case they were happily writing about.

Reputable media outlets, such as the BBC and the Daily Mail, have all paid hefty fines for publicizing evidence which could sway the judgement of the jury. The most important factor to remember is to accurately report only what is explicitly heard by the jury.

Real life drama

Chris Summers, crime reporter for the BBC, said:

“…no matter how well-scripted TV dramas such as CSI, Prime Suspect and The Bill are, they cannot compare with the shocking facts which often emerge in real-life crime stories or the sheer drama of court cases.”

Crime reporting reveals the multi-dimensional, multi-faceted human character, with the darkest side exposed and analyzed within the courtroom walls.

You have to be thick-skinned to sit through some very gruesome trials, but Summers advised that personal feelings need to be pushed aside.

“There is an old saying: “truth is stranger than fiction”, and I am reminded of it on an almost daily basis in my job as a crime reporter,” Summers added.

But there’s a huge responsibility on the shoulders of the journalist to report the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But only the truth that is presented in front of the jury.

– Monica Sarkar

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