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Journalists urged to stage national week of ‘wall-to-wall court coverage’

Old BaileyA journalism lecturer has called for a national week of “wall-to-wall court coverage” to highlight the difficulty regional journalists face in covering courts.

Former Bath Chronicle deputy editor Paul Wiltshire, of the University of Gloucestershire, made the suggestion in a blog post focusing on court closures.

Last year former Labour shadow minister Mary Creagh and Thames Valley police and crime commissioner Anthony Stansfeld were among those to warn of the impact on the regional press after plans were announced to close 86 courts across the country.

In a piece on his personal blog, Paul noted that Cheltenham Magistrates, which he recently visited with his students, is now the only court of its kind in Gloucestershire.

He wrote: “The closure of courts doesn’t just put more miles between a population and the place where justice is done in its name; it also makes it even more difficult for journalists to cover the criminal justice system in action.

“There are pockets of great practice – my friend [Somerset Live court reporter] Laura Linham, [Bristol Post court reporter] Geoff Bennett, and initiatives like [Gloucestershire Live chief reporter] Ben Falconer’s live blog of a day at Cheltenham Mags, which became the best-read article on his website that day.

“There is a virtuous circle created when coverage is good. Regular reporters who take the trouble to oil the wheels of diplomacy with security guards, ushers and lawyers generally get treated well. But the occasional visitor can feel like an inconvenience at best.

“Which is a shame. We need light to be shone in the sometimes dark corners of the court system. All human life is there, for a start – with engaging stories at every turn.”

“I’d like to see a national week of wall-to-wall court coverage, where reporters pour into magistrates and crown courts up and down the land, writing stories, launching live blogs, challenging officials and the judiciary, and generally shining a light into dusty, fusty corners.”

Paul told HTFP: “Exercising your rights is a bit like exercising your muscles: unless you do it regularly, they are in danger of withering away.

“So a week of action would ensure that we keep the doors of justice open – and it might just prove the worth of court coverage to hard-pressed newsdesks.”

8 comments

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  • November 13, 2017 at 9:45 am
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    Oiling the wheels is vital. Years ago I knew an usher who would ring me when a good case was ready to roll. The worst problems I had were with some CPS lawyers who would be obstructive when it came to making basic inquiries like name checks. Being a familiar face helps a lot, but there aren’t many of those now. My local paper’s coverage of court seems to depend on one-sided press releases from the cops. Shame.

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  • November 13, 2017 at 10:40 am
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    What a cracking idea! I hope it will be taken up. It’s about time we had a show of strength from the Fourth Estate. Paul Wiltshire makes all the compelling arguments above, but this one is particular important: “Exercising your rights is a bit like exercising your muscles: unless you do it regularly, they are in danger of withering away.” Or being legislated away…perhaps? So let’s have it then: a campaign banner for participating publications: “Court In The Act!”. What’s more, it could be combined with plenty of warm feature material – Day In the Life Of The Court; how to apply to be a magistrate; what do magistrates do; interviews with key personnel – prosecution and defence, ushers, etc.

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  • November 13, 2017 at 11:22 am
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    Dohhhh….note to Chief Sub and composing room; subst “particularly” in line 3 for “particular”. Just chip the plate if it’s already locked up.

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  • November 13, 2017 at 12:42 pm
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    @Kevin. It’s good that you seem enthusiastic but your suggestions for content are (forgive me) rather establishment and pedestrian. Surely, if you are going to devote time and trouble to a “what goes on in the court” you need to look at the colour: the characters, he frustrations, the endless delays and adjournments, the security, the funnies, the costs, the good, the bad and the ugly. You need someone who can observe and then write witty, pithy stuff, be it praise or criticism. Agreed that person might be hard to find. Please, there is enough waffle in our local papers these days without a feature on “how to apply to be a magistrate”. No-one wants to read about that.

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  • November 13, 2017 at 1:49 pm
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    Well, hush my mouth and I’ll go and say 10 Hail Marys for not providing a sufficiently comprehensive list of all possible subjects. However, practising journalists would understand the nuanced implications of “A Day In the Life Of The Court”.
    As for “How To Apply To Be A Magistrate”, what could be MORE relevant than to consider playing a part in the judicial system which we expect to stand up for us when we have been wronged? It is particularly pertinent because if you voxed 10 people (that means stopping them in the street and asking questions and is often used in news and feature writing) I’d be surprised if more than two were aware that to be considered for appointment as a magistrate, one simply has to apply; an enduring misunderstanding is that it is by invitation only. Another reason for the relevance of this particular subject is that the Bench demographic is skewed – 80% are over 50 years of age and have been for at least the last 5 five years. (https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/judicial-diversity-statistics-2016-2.pdf ). Hardly judgement by one’s peers, is it?
    Anyway, gotta hop; still need to come up with another 11 ideas for my current feature – “20 Ways With Camembert”.

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  • November 13, 2017 at 4:25 pm
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    It would take a week of court visits in my area to come up with a solitary page lead. The never-ending delays, adjournments, technical failures and no-shows is staggering, not to mention the ushers and court officials who would sooner put you in the dock than help you with the name of a magistrate.

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  • November 14, 2017 at 9:30 am
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    USG hit the nail right on its head. Court coverage in some areas is incredibly labour intensive and frustrating. It was OK when newsrooms had people to spare and experienced reporters but now it is often a skeIeton staff and the kids have no court experience, which is dangerous and potentially expensive. So a lot of editors (if the paper has one)do not bother, and who can blame them?

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  • November 14, 2017 at 1:29 pm
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    @Kevin. The thing is, I was thinking about content that might sell a newspaper rather than just fill it. The “day in the life” concept is unadventurous and we should be encouraging our new generations of go-getters to think of better, more modern ways.

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