Extending the Local Democracy Reporting Service to cover reporting trials at court

I picked up this case from Katie Ridley of ITV Anglia

What could have been a standard byline/paragraph of a local news story ( “Woman prosecuted for head-butting window”) ended up being something far more serious – a three year prison sentence. I hope the perpetrator gets the mental health support she needs, and that the victim – veteran court reporter Wendy Barlow, is able to move on.

Ms Barlow’s comments on the impact are one that I can relate to. The joys of having an anxiety disorder for decades meant that from my late teens onwards, any act of violence that happened on a night out would result in me not sleeping and in what should have been the best years of my life, stopped me from going out altogether. The impact on my social life at college and university was devastating. In the late 1990s there were no mentoring programmes and educational establishments were cut to the bone. So there was no one qualified, aware or simply around to point out and arrange for the professional support that I needed.

Fast forward to today and the huge number of journalists who have had to go freelance due to changing business models and media consumption habits in the face of declining local and regional print press. And being freelance means you don’t get all of the protections that you would get by right under the legal protections that generations of campaigners fought for. Like sick pay and holiday pay. The changing patterns of work were furthermore driven by successive ministers over the last decade as freelancing and zero hours became the only option – therefore not an option at all – for too many people. It’s one of the reasons why tax revenues have not increased in the way ministers had hoped in the face of what they saw as rising employment numbers. The politics are toxic – they were toxic when I wrote this in 2013 and I can’t see much has changed.

A broken system of journalism reporting on a broken criminal justice system

The details of just how broken the criminal justice system is, is described eloquently by The Secret Barrister in his book The Secret Barrister – Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken. (It’s going for £7.99 and is a bargain). For Cambridge/Cambridgeshire readers, the MP for South East Cambridgeshire is Lucy Frazer QC MP, who has been at the Ministry of Justice since Jan 2018, which means constituents in South East Cambridgeshire can follow up these issues at future election hustings if they choose to.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service – trying to support public interest journalism in the face of an imploding industry.

It’s one of the best schemes (though not without its problems) to emerge that supports journalists in recent times. Funded by the BBC, the Local Democracy Reporting Service pays for journalists to be embedded in existing local media organisations and report from things like local council meetings. Its biggest complaint is that most of the reporters simply got placed in the existing large national companies that own & run a large stable of media/newspaper titles rather than regional or locally-based independent outlets. That’s why the format online is identical when you switch say from one Reach PLC-brand to another. And Reach PLC is one of the worst offenders in listing local news as local when it isn’t.

“A group of Conservative MPs have written to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps urging him to withdraw support for emergency cycle lanes and low traffic neighbourhoods….

…Although not signed by any MPs in Cambridgeshire, if such a policy were to be pushed forward it would certainly cause a significant change to the landscape here.”

Above – quoting from the original article. So the letter has *not* been signed by any of the county’s MPs. Further more, given the Government’s policy announcement in July 2020 on £20billion funding for cycling & walking schemes, The full policy paper is here. It’s going to take much, much more than a letter from a few angry MPs to make ministers ditch such an announcement.

This isn’t the fault of the individual reporter – this is a structural problem on the back of commercial decisions that the corporation has made much higher up the system. The Daily Express here, and the Hull Daily Mail here, which both bring up the same cookies screen, covered the same story with a tweak here & there. The original press release is here from a pro-motoring campaign group that has a group of interested MPs supporting it in an All-Party Parliamentary Group. (There is also one group for cycling, so they have their opponents).

Extending the LDR to cover court reporters

I’m not a qualified journalist and have never pretended to be. Whenever I’ve been out and about filming & live-tweeting council meetings I’ve run with the term ‘community reporter’, not least because I respect the huge amount of training that journalists have to undertake – and with good reason. Libel laws and contempt of court are just two of the pillars of journalism they need to be aware of. In more recent decades, data protection and the safeguarding of vulnerable people (including but not limited to children, those in hospital, those with severe mental ill-health for example) mean that journalists and editors have to be far more aware of such parameters than in the past. (Mindful that I spend more time reading through content on the British Newspaper Archive than the daily media today)

Two of the basic staples of public interest journalism are local democracy and local court trials. One of the biggest costs of reporting on local government and local court trials are paying for trained, skilled, dedicated, and knowledgeable journalists to turn up to the meetings and hearings. It takes a huge amount of stamina to rock up to a local council committee meeting on a cold, wet November evening to hear councillors cross-examining the local police sergeant summarising the local crime issues. It also requires some knowledge of the criminal justice system to write about it.

In the case of court reporting, how many of you have said to your friends “Oh, I’m just going to court today to have a listen to some of the trials going on!”. One of the most famous court reporters was Charles Dickens – guess where he got some of his characters from. A few years ago Cambridge’s Magistrates Courts (that the Tories tried to shut down) held an open day. I went along with Josh Thomas, then a Local Democracy Reporter, now at the Internet Watch Foundation. We found out that every Tuesday they would deal with the court cases where the defendants were due to plead guilty, so local magistrates were able to process the cases quickly. So that is the day to go to get a feel for the sorts of crimes happening in Cambridge that the police are able to solve and hand over to the Crown Prosecution Service to bring to court.

A Local Court Reporting Service

Such a service would protect at once the profession of court reporting. It would ensure that all localities regardless of affluence and influence received the same basic service of reporting from local courts – not least by reminding local residents that courts still exist despite the huge number of court houses closed by the Tories. (Over half of magistrates courts since 2010, an incredibly high figure.)

It remains to be seen if any of the opposition parties commit themselves to reversing those closures. In the meantime, extending the LDR service to cover courts is being considered. See the update below from Josh Thomas.


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