The daily court round up and in-depth reports from the council chamber have been the bedrock of local news reporting for as many years as the human need to disseminate information has been with us. You could even trace it to a tradition as far back as messengers riding horses from village to village in medieval times to read out the important news of justice and governance. It’s certainly been a part of our lives far longer than the industrialization of the printing process.
But now that everyone is a reporter, and we all have the individual means of transmitting and distributing the news, has the need to receive those judgements and decisions that make up the fabric of our democratic society simply faded out of our day-to-day communal experience?
Former newspaper editor Steve Dyson doesn’t think so. He reviews scores of local papers every month for his column at the website HoldTheFrontPage and, while he notes there are less reporters on the ground from the mainstream media outlets, he finds his local city of Birmingham bustling with more journalistic activity than ever before around local politics.
He said that, 20 years ago, there were two full-time council reporters on the evening Birmingham Mail and a further one at the sister paper The Post where as now there’s just one – and he has a regular news beat to contend with as well.
But it’s not all bad news. New services have also spring up including the hyperlocal twitter stream Politics in Brum, doggedly covering everyday issues at the town hall, and website The Chamberlaine Files, providing in-depth coverage, in addition to there being live webcasts and tweets down to sub-committee level from the council’s own press office.
“There’s nothing that I need to know about that I can’t easily find. I’d say there’s very good coverage of Birmingham Council.”
That trend of new voices moving in to complement a retracted mainstream media can be seen in other parts of the country too. In Cambridgeshire, scientist turned local independent blogger Richard Taylor provides a regular livestream of city council meetings and other local public bodies using youTube, Twitter and a WordPress blog.
Right to blog, film and tweet
And in Leeds, a long campaign to win the right to film and otherwise record council meetings has finally produced results with local website Leeds Citizen and the three journalism schools in the city succeeding in their fight to get the necessary permissions in place – something that the mainstream media will benefit from as well if they choose to allocate their efforts that way in the future.
Where it happens, this more diverse and vibrant ecosystem of the reporting on local decision-making must be a welcome development for the always-on wired generation tuning in to be updated – but how is it playing out in the mainstream newsrooms?
Many journalists are reluctant to speak out for fear of their jobs in these times of regular redundancy rounds. I spoke to this former regional reporter from a large news group on the understanding that their identity and location wouldn’t be revealed. The story looks rather more bleak from their vantage point.
“In my last months at a regional weekly newspaper – an utterly miserable place, where you were forever working with an axe over your head and any kind of initiative was firmly stamped on – I found that I was called upon more and more to regurgitate press releases.
“The editor I worked for was forever in fear of the (council) press officer going to our rival with stories or holding back on a quote when we were on deadline. The press officer had an awful lot of power.
” There was definitely a sense with all of the publications locally that they were losing their teeth – they were becoming lapdogs rather than attack dogs.”
Workings of justice
And this feeling of retraction was also something which extended into the activity of court reporting. The reporter outlined a mixture of pressures, from an overloaded newsroom as well the rather antiquated way that the courts worked, as reasons for little attention to the everyday workings of justice.
“The magistrates court started producing lists of cases that had been dealt with. Nobody wanted to deal with them and they ended up being left in piles around the newsroom. I took on the task, combing through the paperwork and getting advance warning of good cases that hadn’t been dealt with on the first appearance as a result. Sometimes the editor would let me do the stories, other times he would give the case to someone else, depending on their workload and how much he liked them on that particular day.
“We were informed of big cases where the council had prosecuted (serial asbos, large scale benefit fraud) and also by the police when a significant case was due to come to court. The smaller ones – the ones that were dealt with in magistrates – tended to be ignored. I doubt anyone is doing that paperwork now.
“Civil and County courts, we didn’t touch, even though during my time as a reporter the law was changed to allow reporting of family cases. We never went.”
Unlike council reporting, where there are many statutory requirements for local authorities to make documents such as agendas and minutes public, gaining the access to the necessary information to carry out court reporting is proving to be more difficult for the hyperlocal publishers and bloggers.
Recent work carried out by talk about local has involved consultation with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to explore opening up more data to help this.
Sadly, just last month, the MoJ effectively kicked that work into the long grass due to the technical limitations of the existing infrastructure which will lead to a delay in releasing data, as my colleague there William Perrin reported.
“So much activity at MoJ around courts only supports the ‘gentlemens club atmosphere’ (a leading barristers words not mine) that surrounds any given court. And this episode [delaying data release] is hardly illustrative of a flat out drive for openness.
“A regular member of the public still can’t find out what is happening in their local magistrates court and when.
“In an age of declining local papers, justice is not seen to be done. It still beggars belief that this is the same British court system that has prided itself on openness since the C17th when a judge ordered the doors of the court to be flung open.”
Transparency in the process
Access to justice is an area which journalist and research associate Judith Townend is focussing on and she believes the courts could already do more to help bloggers, hyperlocal sites and other interested parties access the courts and fill the gap being left from the mainstream media.
“I don’t have hard numbers, but there’s a general sense there’s been a decline in regular court reporting in terms of regional titles, and at the nationals as well, you anecdotally hear that from people saying there are fewer journalists are in court on a daily basis which is worrying because it means less information about the day-to-day of courts is reaching the public.”
She points to the public inquiry system as an example of activity where more transparency has been forthcoming with the publication of transcripts and documents online.
“It’s a fundamental part of democracy to have a principle of open justice where courts are open and the public is able to attend. There’s a famous quote about it It’s from Lord Denning, in his book The Road to Justice (1955, p 64)
“Every member of the public must be entitled to report in the public press all that he has seen and heard.”
But alongside that she cautions that greater education or training could also be required to equip those without professional training to be able to effectively navigate what can be confusing and antiquated systems of justice.
Dyson also notes that his local courts are still covered by reporters who have been doing the job for 20, 30 or more years, mostly as freelancers and in some cases now to supplement their pensions.
“The fact that it will take an experienced reporter some time to get into that system and find out what’s going on in a court is not in itself a bad thing, it’s not actually against open justice.
“The thing that is against open justice is the big publishing centres not being willing to to resource that work because it won’t produce enough copy for them to make the money that it used to.
“It’s not the system that is broken on open justice, it’s the funding of it by the want-to-be-in-profit companies largely owning the Press.”
Which leaves all of us – mainstream and independents alike – with a big challenge for the future. If the systems and processes of justice are too important to remain reliant on cosy individual relationships and shuffled notes from friendly clerks, then change to ensure a next generation of court reporters even exists are needed.
Finding a new, modern way to access justice that doesn’t rely on those for-profit news group’s fickle editorial tastes is something that needs to find its way onto the legal and political agenda now else we risk our repository of collective experience joining that horseback messenger in the history books.
* This article was first published at the community funded journalism platform Contributoria.com as part of the International Press Institute special issue on Press Freedom and is reproduced here at Prolific North with permission.