Court reporters have always been as interested in what interests the public as in the public interest. So, from Bristol Magistrates’ Court, we read of a motorist who was ‘surprised’ he was over the drink-drive limit after taking a traditional flu remedy of honey, garlic, ginger and white rum.
From the same venue, what to make of a judge who observed that ‘no one thinks sensibly after a bottle of whisky’, when fining a woman for the same offence?
Actually, I didn’t read about either case. I couldn’t have. There were no journalists in court to report on them. These nuggets were in fact dug up by a study of magistrates’ court reporting by academics at the University of the West of England.
The study is depressing enough for its confirmation that traditional media have abandoned ‘bread-and-butter’ courts business. And not only for the loss of lurid local colour.
In one week at Bristol, just one reporter was spotted by the researchers and ‘hundreds of stories went untold’.
We know local papers are dying. That is not news. Where the study really enthrals is in the detail about how much of real importance is being missed. To paraphrase the journalist Nick Davies, the cases that flow through the courts reflect the society around them and expose its faultlines. They tell us who and what we are.
So, of 240 cases in that one week, one in five involved illegal drugs. One in six involved an explicit mental health issue. One in 10 defendants was homeless. News?
As for the system itself, the much-vaunted concept of Open Justice is compromised not only by the absence of data, but also skewed data. Traditional news values ‘have been turned upside down’. Low-level crimes make the press only due to the availability of CPS press releases that list only those defendants found guilty and offer no indication of how fair or robust was the underlying justice process.
The study suggests community media could incubate a new generation of justice reporters. I am sceptical. Who is going to train, pay and indemnify them?
But perhaps something is better than nothing.