Should journalists attend court?.. Part 2
22 May 2011
I asked in a recent post whether journalists need to attend court hearings to report accurately. The post arose from judgment in a family court case involving a mother’s abuse of her baby. The judge took the unusual step of criticising the Sunday Telegraph’s Christopher Booker’s reporting, which he called “unbalanced, inaccurate and just plain wrong“. That criticism was then supported by the most senior family judge in a different judgment.
Christopher Booker has now responded to my post, although somewhat obliquely. He writes:
I was again attacked last week by a prominent legal blogger, for reporting on cases where the system appears to be going tragically wrong, without having sat for days in court to hear “both sides of the story”.
This barrister compared me to a sports writer who cannot be bothered to watch a football match, but relies on a version given by one player after the game. But would a journalist attend a match when he is forbidden to name the teams or any of the players, may be imprisoned for disclosing much of what happens on the pitch, and is even prohibited from giving the final score? This is a better analogy for the secrecy which surrounds what goes on in our family courts. It is only remarkable how much of this corrupted system we can still manage, quite accurately, to bring to public view.
It is flattering to be referenced. It would have been even more so if Booker had referred to me by name or linked to the original post. Anyway, by way of response, I take common cause with Lucy Reed at Pink Tape, who points out that
having made the decision that it is not commercially justified to attend the “fixture” would a responsible journalist nonetheless go ahead and report the match anyway? One would hope not – at least not without verifying his information / sources. That Booker has overlooked dealing with this point is illuminating.
The point of the football match analogy was to demonstrate, in a way which anyone who hasn’t ever been to court (that is, the vast majority of people) could relate to, the enormous difference in perspective which one gains by actually attending a hearing in which witness evidence is heard.
In the sad family division case which Booker was writing about, evidence was heard from the parents of the child and the medical experts involved. The decision was by no means clear-cut, and relied on a subtle and careful analysis by the judge of the evidence he heard during the hearings.
Some think judge got it wrong; that much is clear from the impassioned comments to my last post. Perhaps his decision will be overturned on appeal. But as anyone who has been to court will know, in an emotional and finely balanced trial, judges make rulings on the basis of a mixture of raw facts and the general impression the receive after hearing evidence from witnesses being tested under cross examination from barristers.
In a complex case such as this, it is hard to see how anyone can come to a judgment, let alone one of the immovable certainty which Booker appears to have reached, without attending some of the hearing or at least reading a transcript of the evidence.
The fact remains that although Booker may be disappointed that he cannot name the players in the case, he did not spend one minute attending the match. He then went on to provide a strongly worded opinion piece in a national newspaper based wholly on the evidence of the mother.
Surely the fact that Booker cannot name the people involved in the case (for now) does not absolve him of the basic requirements of investigative reporting, namely to listen to both sides of the story and not to reach a conclusion before doing so.
Moreover, he is a professional journalist and, unlike the general public – many of whom are angry at the way in which family courts go about their business – has the opportunity to attend court and then provide an alternative judgment if necessary. Arguably in an anonymised case, which is harder to report from a distance, he has an even more urgent responsibility to do so.
This debate keys into the wider one on privacy in the courts. The opening up of the family courts to journalists, albeit with restrictions on who can be named, should have allowed the media to come to more informed judgments on cases. Perhaps some had become more comfortable with making olympian judgments from afar. This is a shame, as if there are problems in the courts and the family justice system in general, journalists are best placed to expose them.
The fact that Booker hasn’t linked to my piece and that comments have been disabled “for legal reasons” means that this isn’t much of a debate anyway. As many at the #lawblogs event last Thursday (more on this soon; for now see this report by James Wilson) emphasised, hyperlinks are absolutely crucial to legal blogging and reporting, as they allow readers to examine the primary sources a writer is commenting on for themselves, and then decide if they agree.
The fact that none of Booker’s articles link to the ruling he is complaining about or the blog he has disagreed with are perhaps indicative of his style of taking no prisoners but also to a large extend preaching to the converted.
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