Of course it’s inaccurate. But if a gavel image boosts interest in legal matters, where’s the harm?
Journalists, I can confirm, do not generally wear trilby hats with a press card jammed in the band.
Likewise, only a minority of scientists wear white coats at work. And few, if any, shipwreck survivors end up on desert islands boasting a solitary palm tree. But on the whole we can live with these visual clichés as quick aids to identification in cartoons, on the web and on stage and screen.
Not so in the legal world, where another inaccuracy seems to causes genuine opprobrium: the gavel and sounding block. If a newspaper or website commits the sin of including this on a story about the law in England and Wales, they can expect an uproar on social media and almost certainly an ‘outing’ on the excellent Inappropriate Gavels website.
Look, I understand the anger. English judges have never used gavels at any point in history. It’s plain wrong. The error is even more galling when it's made by what should be impeccable authorities such as the government's own gov.uk website.
And yes, such mistakes accentuate stereotypes, ultimately undermining faith and confidence in the legal system. Viewers and readers are being hoodwinked into believing the courtroom to be a piece of theatre, with the judge wielding a gavel like a conductor at the Proms.
Accuracy is, of course, essential. And I despair at people’s lack of understanding when it comes to the workings of the legal profession (the result of which is often indifference towards appalling legislation affecting the sector).
But does the inappropriate gavel really matter? When Radio 1’s Newsbeat site used it to illustrate an otherwise decent piece on legal aid reforms, did that dilute the message or content? Or did it offer a convenient and recognisable visual aid to entice otherwise indifferent readers to learn more about a subject they had never encountered before?
Popular culture will do few favours to many professions. Viewers of Casualty will be forgiven for expecting real-life doctors to flirt/argue with each other over their operating table. Police officers, according to The Bill’s closing credits, walk aimlessly and painfully slowly. Journalists are all scheming drunkards (the last one has a ring of truth, admittedly).
Gavels are obviously misleading. But is a white lie OK so long as it helps people understand the wider issues?
John Hyde is Gazette deputy news editor