AddThis SmartLayers

Concerns over scrutiny of coroners’ courts as study finds only 11pc of inquests covered

Amy BinnsPolice attitudes to journalists and declining newsroom resources have been cited as key factors after research revealed just one in nine inquests are being covered by the media.

A study by the University of Central Lancashire has revealed only 11pc of full inquests which took place in nine towns and cities over a two-month period were reported by the press.

The research focused on 358 inquests held across nine coroners’ courts in May and June last year, with reports from 40 being published in a local media outlet.

The research by Dr Amy Binns, senior lecturer in digital journalism, and Sophie Arnold, lecturer in shorthand and journalism, examined nine sample areas – Birmingham, Blackpool, Bradford, Dorset, Exeter, Newcastle, Preston, South Wales and Surrey.

They found fewer than 5pc of cases were covered at Birmingham, Blackpool, Bradford – with none at all being reported on in Newcastle.

Exeter’s inquests received the most coverage, with reports of 31pc of hearings being published.

Interviews conducted with editors and working journalists as part of the research cited the lack of newsroom resources and a lack of background knowledge when deciding what to cover.

The respondents also spoke of issues with police and coroners, the loss of personal relationships due to their own and the police’s stretched resources, increased police wariness and changed agendas of communication teams, as well as difficulties getting information.

Former Yorkshire Post and Lancashire Telegraph reporter Amy, pictured, said: “It is clear the level of reporting of inquests in the UK is a matter of concern and the importance of this cannot be underestimated.

“Although many inquests may be only routine recordings of facts a reporting rate of 11pc, with 0pc in some areas, represents a significant lack of provision of independent oversight into the unexpected deaths of British citizens, and a consequent loss to public interest investigations.

“Due to falling newspaper advertising revenue, there is a shrinking number of local journalists. Fewer attend court, thus many more inquests go unreported. Some deaths are missed altogether.

“Deaths may also go unreported at the time due to centralisation of both police and newspaper offices, which has led to fewer direct contacts between police and journalists. A general cultural shift of passing media inquiries to a police ‘communications team’ of PR specialists also means news is likely to be filtered to give a more positive sense of police success.”

Added Sophie: “We found coverage varies wildly, with some ‘news deserts’ where inquests are rarely reported. It seems likely that some news media are following the proceedings of the coroners’ courts closely and reporting most significant cases while for others it is extremely rare for a reporter to attend an inquest.”

Amy and Sophie said they were unable to compare figures with previous data, citing the fact more inquests are held now than prior to 2003 due to the Harold Shipman case, which found that scores of patients thought to have died naturally had in fact been murdered.

As part of their research the pair interviewed three regional daily editors – the Bournemouth Echo’s Andy Martin, the Huddersfield Daily Examiner’s Wayne Ankers and Gavin Thompson, then of the Western Daily Press and now editing the South Wales Argus.

They also spoke to Lancashire Telegraph reporter Amy Farnworth, Lancashire Post news editor Jenny Simpson and Keighley News chief reporter Alistair Shand.

Gavin told the researchers: “With small newsrooms you are making more difficult decisions about resources. Can you send someone out to spend a whole afternoon on one story?

“You are only going to do it if you are pretty confident you are going to get something newsworthy about it.”

Discussing police-media relations, Andy said: said: “I go back to when you could have direct contact with police detectives. Now it’s all done through teams of communication officers – in inverted commas – who put up barriers.

“The new breed come in with a different mindset about ‘you should not talk to the press except on your own terms’. Police and local authorities want to set their own news agenda. They have news teams who pump out their own news releases and propaganda.

On a similar point, Wayne said: “We used to call CID and that relationship has sort of dwindled. Sometimes it can be down to the fact that they are unhappy with what we have reported but it can also be due to them being extremely busy.

“You ring CID and you might get an officer you spoke to previously but you can also ring and get someone you have not got a relationship with and get nothing at all.

“You would think the local paper and website would still have working relationships but it depends to be at my level with the chiefs superintendents rather than a reporter level with the Detective Inspectors.

“That’s partially our fault because we have got smaller resources. It’s not the same person making the calls every day. That’s how you build relationships with them.”

Jenny said there had been a dedicated inquest reporter before she arrived at the Preston-based Post more than 12 years ago, which was no longer possible.

She added: “We wouldn’t send someone speculatively and so we don’t have someone popping in regularly and having a chat.”