Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Tweeting court cases - the case for the defence

Technology and court reporting - it's the debate that keeps on giving.
In March 2009, after the Palm Beach Post won the right for a reporter to leave the courtroom to tweet an update (seriously, this happened) I wrote that the UK needed to get the courtroom press bench online and networked, and you suddenly really do start to have open justice.   

I wasn’t especially hopeful though. 
However, just a few years later we were given right to tweet updates from court without shuffling apologetically out of the room; journalists can sit with an laptop and tweet from the press bench (assuming we remembered to bring a dongle).

This is an amazing and wonderful thing that we must not take for granted; re-reading my old post and seeing the excuses I made as to why the justice system in England and Wales might not change was illuminating; to be honest, I am surprised the Twitter ruling was achieved in such a short space of time.  

However, there is a problem, as highlighted in Press Gazette today: Tweeting from court: ‘It’s multi-skilling gone mad’ was the headline and the article pointed out the pitfalls.
Chris Johnson, from Mercury, highlighted the obvious issue of prejudicial tweets (just last month a reporter named a juror while live-tweeting the Harry Redknapp trial) but there were also two unnamed reporters complaining about the demands of covering the case and tweeting it.
One said: “While you’re fiddling around with your 140 characters, you may miss a key bit of evidence, or might not have the time to take a good shorthand note of something. It’s going to end in tears.”

The pressures of tweeting a high profile case are obvious, and can take some planning to surmount.
The South Wales Argus recently overcame the difficulty of meeting real time demand with detailed court reporting by assigning two staff to the key days of a murder trial - one to liveblog via Twitter, and one to take notes for print.
That’s a big commitment for a regional newsroom to make, and fair play to the Argus for seeing the issue and understanding the differing needs of its reporters and audience.
But such an undertaking it’s not a sustainable use of resources in most over-stretched newsrooms - and it’s also not necessary in most cases.
Evidence is repeated... and repeated, some witnesses add nothing to the story, other than the line ‘the court also heard from Joe Bloggs who said he had seen the defendant walking along Any Street, Any Town, shortly before [insert nefarious deed here]’, and the quotable newsy stuff, are easily picked out of the warp and weft of the evidence by a hack with an ear for interesting copy.

I’ve little sympathy for the anonymous reporter quoted in Press Gazette who claims tweeting in court is too hard; please don't blame the lifting of restrictions enable you to do your job more effectively (hint: Your job is telling people what's happening) when what you mean is you've not been properly equipped by your organisation. 
Also, anonymous reporter, have you told your newsdesk what kit you need to do live court reporting adequately? Ten years ago your kit would have been a notepad, pen and a mobile phone. Twenty years ago it would have been your notepad, pen, and access to a public telephone. What do you need now? I'd imagine a laptop, smartphone, notepad, pen and connectivity. 
These are not exactly hostage-taking demands.
Journalism is hard - every day difficulties have to be overcome, whether it’s tweeting from court or knocking on the door of a newly-bereaved parent, or dashing out of a council meeting and filing 500 words off the top of your head to meet the  Late City edition deadline (On reflection, Late City edition deadlines don’t exist any more - let’s say for the website instead).
There may be live tweeting happening from other sources - media or in the public gallery (assuming they’ve sought and received permission) but that’s not a reason to stop.
Taking notes on a laptop and cut and pasting summaries into Twitter as appropriate is achievable, and shifts the problem of tweeting in court from manpower to having the correct kit.

But ultimately, this is just a workaround isn't it?
Tweeting from court, being allowed to operate a laptop from the press bench - these are issues that detract from the main problem. If we were to have real open justice then our courts need to be live-streamed, with subtitles - and screens, voice replacement technology and other protection methods for cases where identity is an issue - and with embeddable players so the distribution of judicial process is as wide as possible.
The Leveson hearings have allowed more people than ever before follow significant evidence in real time. 
I’d love to see our criminal courts follow suit.


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