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Journalists excluded from murder trial after judge severs video link

Ellie IorizzoJournalists were excluded from watching a murder trial remotely after a judge’s “unreasonable” decision to sever a video link to the court.

Judge Heather Norton ruled in favour of disconnecting the link at Reading Crown Court after claiming her peers had been taking too lenient a view of “broadcasting” proceedings during the pandemic.

Ellie Iorizzo, assistant editor at Reading-based Hyde News & Pictures agency was in a packed court to cover the case, along with a BBC reporter.

However, the judge’s decision affected other journalists who were covering proceedings remotely.

The case in question relates to the death of 13-year-old Olly Stephens, in which two 14-year-old boys face a murder charge and a 14-year-old girl has admitted manslaughter.

The judge’s ruling came after she became aware that the girl’s parents, who “live some distance away” but “wish to understand about the circumstances which has led to these proceedings”, wanted to watch the trial via video link.

A section of the 2003 Criminal and Justice Act was amended in 2020 to include the Coronavirus Act, enabling courts to broadcast proceedings.

But yesterday, during the third day of the trial, the judge told the court: “This trial is taking place in court, the defendants, their legal representatives, family members of the victim and the press have all been accommodated within this courtroom.”

Judge Norton also refused the application in the interests of justice and stated that it would be extending the courtroom beyond its elasticity allowing people to observe from the “comfort of their living room.”

She added: “The application of a CVP link is refused. I understand other judges have been taking a lenient view, perhaps we have all become used in court to use technology in ways we could not have foreseen 12 months ago and would not have been possible 12 months ago.

“The fact that the technology exists does not mean they have a lawful basis. I understand this may have wider implications for members of the public but also for the members of the press.

“The press, like anyone else, can come to the court and once we are full we are full. The law on broadcasting may change within the year but for now it is refused, but it is not without sympathy.”

Defence counsel Kate Lumsdon QC had argued the girl’s parents were “desperate” to watch proceedings, but prosecutor Alison Morgan QC claimed that the strict restrictions on the trial due to age of the defendants could be “diluted and jeopardised by the provisions of the video link”.

Ellie, pictured, told HTFP yesterday: “I was surprised by the judge’s ruling today, particularly the encouraging of members of the public and press to go to court when social distancing measures haven’t been lifted and space is extremely limited in the courtroom.

“The efforts made by the courts to ensure journalists had access to hearings during the coronavirus pandemic was impressive and was a huge step in ensuring open justice, particularly where courts have previously been criticised for being slow to adapt.

“As the judge pointed out, courts now have the technology and the systems to seamlessly facilitate remote access and it seems unreasonable to cut the link which worked so well for all those using it during this high profile murder trial.”

Neil Hyde, editor of the Hyde News & Pictures agency, added: “We sent assistant editor Ellie Iorizzo to court for this trial. She was one of only two journalists allowed to sit on the press bench in the courtroom – a BBC reporter being the other one. Other journalists were excluded from the court.

“The ruling by Judge Norton to cut the remote video link is significant and could spell problems for journalists up and down the country who have become accustomed to remote court coverage during the pandemic.

“Whilst the agency was fortunate to have Ellie physically present in court it would have been a different story if we had been relying on the link as so many other journalists were.

“The Olly Stephens murder case if very high profile and was being followed remotely by others.

“We shall be watching now to see whether other judges and coroners follow the lead created at Reading Crown Court.”