Court reporter Charlie Moloney, 26, has questioned whether more can be done to help journalists working from home after covering the most “traumatising” trial of his career via remote link.
Charlie, pictured, who works for Reading-based Hyde News & Pictures, has explained why in the below piece for HTFP.
Last Tuesday I covered a trial which featured the most upsetting, depraved and grim set of allegations I have ever encountered in my relatively brief career – my editor, of 50 years experience, said the copy might be the most unpleasant he has ever read.
If you choose to go into court reporting you need a certain level of resilience to the darker side of human nature, but the things I saw and heard that day left me with a restlessness which I am partly addressing by writing this.
Strangely one of the things which covering this case caused me to recall was an article about the James Bulger case – not for its comparative horror (which I cannot discuss while the case continues) but for one line which has always stuck with me by the journalist David James Smith, who wrote the definitive book on the Bugler killing, The Sleep of Reason.
In a feature for The Times in 2018, James Smith recalled befriending the lawyer who was defending Robert Thompson and said the two of them would visit a local pub in Liverpool and chat about the case. James Smith said they would “sometimes sit up late at night considering what made children kill”.
He added: “There were the practicalities of this case, and beyond were the existential questions that required copious glasses of rum to comprehend.”
Trawling through other first-person reports of that famous trial in November 1993, I find similar references everywhere to evenings spent at the hotel bar, gallows humour among the hardened hacks and sombre ruminations on the question of the nature of evil, humanity and that eternal question of “why?”
Perhaps the most notable difference between those journalists operating in the 90s and myself is that I am watching the trial on a computer while sat in my living room, trying to ignore the insistent rattling of my washing machine.
I cannot see the defendant most of the time, other than as the vaguest pixelated blur in the top corner of my screen. Nobody can see or hear me and if I want to ask a question I will either send an email to the court listings office or message the court clerk over the instant chat service on the HMCTS Cloud Video Platform.
Several other journalists are sat digitally alongside me but we are not communicating with one another and the only indication I have that they are listening is when their articles pop up online as the afternoon wears on.
I am usually delighted at the prospect of working from home, which gives me the time spent commuting to court to do other things, saves our news agency money and means I can enjoy the occasional cup of coffee while writing my reports – a pleasure usually denied by the perpetually broken court vending machines.
However, with the traumatising images of yesterday’s trial still ringing fresh in my mind, I find myself wanting more than anything to sit down and speak to other people who understand.
Of course, we are in the midst of a global pandemic and there is no dodging the need to avoid any unnecessary trips outdoors, but remote access to court hearings could remain in place permanently, even after Covid-19 restrictions are lifted in the hopefully near future.
There are ongoing discussions between HMCTS and media representatives to explore the possibility of keeping the door open for journalists to join court hearings digitally in a number of different forums.
I am a fully converted member of the digital access brigade as I think this historic technological advance in open justice is something to be grabbed with both hands. Publications and freelancers will be more likely to cover courts if they do not have to pay the travel costs for sending their reporters in person.
This will lead to more scrutiny, particularly of some regional courts which currently do not get any coverage at all. Me sitting in my living room to cover a major trial is a win for journalism in that sense.
What journalism loses in this are those now somewhat fantastical sounding late night conversations, fuelled by copious glasses of rum, mulling over the big questions.
For now and possibly forever, many journalists will no longer even have a newsroom.
If junior reporters are stripped of these vital opportunities to decompress or hear some useful words of advice from more senior journalists, the industry should consider what could be put in place to provide that sense of community which had lured so many into journalism and made it such an enjoyable career in the past.