Court orders that make court reporting redundant

39. Power to prohibit publication of certain matter in newspapers.
— (1) In relation to any proceedings in any court . . . F6, the court may direct that—
(a)
no newspaper report of the proceedings shall reveal the name, address or school, or include any particulars calculated to lead to the identification, of any child or young person concerned in the proceedings, either as being the person [F7by or against] or in respect of whom the proceedings are taken, or as being a witness therein:
(b)
no picture shall be published in any newspaper as being or including a picture of any child or young person so concerned in the proceedings as aforesaid;

except in so far (if at all) as may be permitted by the direction of the court.

Court reporting has been a focus of intense debate in recent weeks. First there was the live tweeting of Julian Assange’s first appearance in a British Court (points awarded to The Times, although most of the world’s media seems to be claiming credit for that one) hotly followed by the interim guidance from the Lord Chief Justice with regards to live text-base reporting, as document puts it.

All this let to some intense debate among media commentators, across every platform you care to think of, around the whole issue of court reporting, and how the Law of the Land is achingly behind developments of the last century, let alone this one.
Then half the online world convicted a man who was arrested and later released without charge in relation to the Joanne Yeates murder investigation, and the debate shifted to the new Hot Topic – Contempt of Court and social media. 

That’s an important issue and (I reckon) the inability to control what people say on social media will play a significant part in forcing  an update to our antiquated legal system. But, away from the Hot Topics of tweeting in court, and inappropriate Facebook wall posts, an issue that really needs a brighter spotlight shining on it is surely the scattergun dispensing of reporting restrictions that regularly occurs in magistrates and crown courts, under the aegis of the Section 39 Children and Young Persons Act 1933.


I’ll leave the expert commentary to, well, experts like David Banks (although I am foxed by some restrictions; most reporters have, at some point, watched from the press bench as a  hulking, recidivist 17-year-old thug swaggered out of the court on bail, knowing his identity was securely hidden from the public).  However, it’s the orders placed on infants, that only serve to protect the adult defendants, that really irk. Although it’s been a while since I covered a court I’m surmising things are just as bad as when I did from the steady parade of ‘Trainee overturns Section 39 etc etc…’ like this one on trade websites. 

And I’ve made challenges in the past*, both as a reporter and as a news editor, (sometimes successfully but often not, even though the order was incorrectly made); my copy of McNaes went from thumbed, to broken-spined, to redundant because I knew it off by heart. I also know, from several frustrating episodes, that it is desperately difficult to tell a magistrate or judge that they are wrong, and get them to agree. 


This month, Gerry Keighley of the South Wales Argus, made a stand and stopped his reporter covering a neglect case because of an order preventing the identification of an 18-month-old child meant the defendants couldn’t be identified either.
He said he was fed up with the law being inconsistently being applied, and that the Argus wouldn’t report such cases with similar orders in future if salient details had to be withheld. Hold the Front Page has a full report here.
As a news editor I’ve also uttered the words “don’t bother staying then” to reporters ringing from court to say their challenge has failed. Open justice is a fine thing but there’s only so far an over-stretched hack can take things, and only so many different levels of the courts one can appeal to. 
Also, there’s only so much time an understaffed newsroom can commit to sitting in a court for a report that essentially reads: “A [insert city/large town/rural borough name here] man was today jailed for six years for [doing something appalling to a baby]”. It means nothing to the reader – in fact, it’s just frustrating because it’s not half a story, it’s a fraction of a story. The who and the where are as important and the what, why and how. Yet misuse of Sec 39 takes away two crucial details while allowing (should the publisher of the content be so-minded) the graphic details to remain.  

Added to this is the crucial point that there are only so many times an editor can call on legal departments to make representations, in writing or in person, and with dwindling budgets that’s the thing that worries me most. 

If I were a defence solicitor in magistrates court, and I had a case that was heading for crown and featured a small child, I’d be on my hindlegs in a heartbeat reminding the bench of the need to protect its identity. Because the chances of the order holding (at least until there’s a conviction) would be good, and I’d want to show my client I was fighting on their behalf. 
I’m not saying this is what defence solicitors habitually practise – they are fine and upstanding people with the law firmly at the heart of all they do, of course! – but it is what I’d do. Just as I’d request an afternoon court date for a client who wanted to stay out of the local paper, as I’d know most friendly neighbourhood court reporters tend to to be send on another job by then, and misdemeanors were more likely to go unreported.


Anyway, the Section 39 stories that appear in trade press every month are all along the lines of reporters successfully overturning orders/railing against unfair orders. What is – I think – needed is actually less ‘well done everyone’ and more ‘wtf is going on here?’ as demonstrated by the Argus. It would be great to see a collective industry push to get greater qualification and clarity for those with judicial responsibilities (especially at grassroots level), so fewer hardy trainees had to contest Sec 39s in the first place.
It’s just a thought. 


* My last Sec 39 challenge involved a child neglect case (toddler, in this case) ; the parents were previously convicted and due to be sentenced but they couldn’t be identified because of the order. The judge was immovable and the order remained intact but that isn’t why I remember it. I remember it because the social worker in the case grabbed me outside the courtroom door and yelled at me: “I hope you can never have children!”
Which was a little disconcerting a few moments before standing up to make legal representations. Still, it’s always nice to know that social services have the best interests of the child at heart…


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The Leaving of Liverpool

The Liver Building, Liver Birds“Farewell to Prince’s Landing Stage
River Mersey, fare thee well”*

 So that’s it – I am a Liverpool Daily Post and Echo staffer no more. After countless news conferences, telephone calls from people who start their conversationWori’is,is… and cups of coffee, I have cleared my desk drawers and turned in the company N97.

In 1996 I joined my first daily, the Gloucester Citizen, and was told I was replacing someone who had Gone To The Liverpool Echo. That was the first inkling I had that this was an aspirational thing. So I investigated further and discovered that not only was it an incredible newspaper, it was also an incredible city.Years later, when I was a news editor, I saw an assistant editor job on the Echo advertised and – nothing ventured – I applied for it.
I didn’t get it of course.

But I was invited to join as news editor, for six months, to cover a secondment. I snatched editor Mark Dickinson’s hand off… and after I’d been here three months he told me the job was mine for good.
With the Echo I got to work on incredible stories, from international headlines – the Ken Bigley kidnap and murder in Iraq, the disappearance of Madelaine McCann, the Miracle of Istanbul – one of the best nights of my journalistic career – and the (first) sale of Liverpool FC.

Two years later the editor of the Liverpool Daily Post, Mark Thomas, offered me a job as his deputy and I crossed the Rubicon. It was a strange experience to stop being in competition with the Post; it took about a fortnight to settle in and start saying “we” instead of “you”. I got to edit front pages, work on commercial projects and understand the strategy behind an AB morning title, and where it fitted in alongside the brawny Echo.
Two years after that, the newsrooms merged and I was back working on both titles, with a new digital team and a new philosophy. It was hard, and it didn’t work the way that we’d all hoped and wanted it to immediately (and it still has its’ moments) but gradually change was effected. The city was changing too – it staged its first Twestival, followed by TEDx Liverpool and a host of other events – How?Why?DIY! and Ignite Liverpool, and Social Media Cafe Liverpool – among them.

I’ve made a lot of friends, I’ve made a lot of discoveries and mistakes, and I’ve learned more than my frazzled brain could hold at times.
The best thing, other than the friends I’ve made, to come out of my move to Liverpool was the new direction my career took; as a result of the TM Journalism Leaders Course at UCLan I became aware of digital journalism. And if it seems mad that it took a course to make me realise you could do more than basic Googling on the internet, let me add that I wasn’t particularly non-techie or hostile; I genuinely didn’t realise the possibilities that existed. I think there were a lot of journalists in the same boat, not all of them got lucky and had their employers pay for a reprogramming like mine did.

Digital journalism is just Journalism but with an awareness and willingness to use new tools to help you open your ears and eyes more widely, and with more conversations taking place around you and involving you. It’s connected , networked , social journalism- whatever label you want to give it. Digital journalism connects us; it’s not about Being First Online First (file that one under AZ Shooting Fail) or Making Video, or requiring everyone in a newsroom tweet whether they want to or not.

Writer (and former journalist) Terry Pratchett once used the phrase ‘Old gods do new jobs’ to describe a change; that makes sense to me. Notebooks become netbooks, cameras become smartphones with megapixel cameras and HD video, contacts become Facebook  fans and Twitter followers but these are only new tools for storytelling and connecting. Journalism is what it has always been – finding things out, asking the right questions, sharing the information. The tools change easily; changing ourselves as individuals, or our culture as an industry, proves more demanding and time-consuming.

And so on to Wales and new challenges as an editor for the first time. The blog goes on, with the same idea of helping me make sense of the world of journalism, and the problems, discoveries and excitements will continue I suspect – only the geography will change.
I can’t wait.

Lyrics: The Leaving of Liverpool
Image by David Le Masurier via Flickr

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A tale of one, possibly two, stabbings and maybe a glassing. Or not.

I was working as editor on the Post and the Echo newspapers on the day of the Liverpool FC v Everton FC derby match, when there was an announcement during the match that Anfield Road was closed because of ‘an incident’, and people should avoid that area when the left.

Soon after the rumours started: A man was stabbed…a man was dead… an Everton fan had been stabbed by a Liverpool fan… two Everton fans had been stabbed… one Everton fan was dead, another fighting for life..you get the picture*.
I was tracking the story across Twitter and Facebook, and I couldn’t believe what some people were posting – without a shred of evidence that anyone was stabbed, let alone dead.
I thought Storify might be a good way to illustrate bow what started out as a crowd announcement became – in the space of around 30 minutes – a massive swirl of misinformation culminating in an RIP tribute page on Facebook.(Update: The Storify embedded in this post doesn’t seem to show up in rss readers)
Interestingly, we were tweeting the official police confirmation that a man had been assaulted at the King Harry pub, but the noise of the networks swept the grains of truth away without regard. I also found a Mirror journalist at the game had asked a policeman, who was refreshingly off-message, but still rumours flew back and forth. ‘Everton fan stabbed to death’ tweets were still being posted after 11pm and no doubt they will continue tomorrow.

* This was what happened

.bbpBox26780664011431936 {background:url(http://a3.twimg.com/a/1294279085/images/themes/theme1/bg.png) #C0DEED;padding:20px;} p.bbpTweet{background:#fff;padding:10px 12px 10px 12px;margin:0;min-height:48px;color:#000;font-size:18px !important;line-height:22px;-moz-border-radius:5px;-webkit-border-radius:5px} p.bbpTweet span.metadata{display:block;width:100%;clear:both;margin-top:8px;padding-top:12px;height:40px;border-top:1px solid #fff;border-top:1px solid #e6e6e6} p.bbpTweet span.metadata span.author{line-height:19px} p.bbpTweet span.metadata span.author img{float:left;margin:0 7px 0 0px;width:38px;height:38px} p.bbpTweet a:hover{text-decoration:underline}p.bbpTweet span.timestamp{font-size:12px;display:block}

Police appeal for witnesses after fan suffers broken jaw in attack before Merseyside derby http://bit.ly/fRsKr9less than a minute ago via twitterfeed

And how the next day’s Echo carried the story on the front  page:

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What readers think of Big Numbers

Sometimes a picture (or three) is worth a thousand words…

First we have this…

Followed by this…

And finally, courtesy of a quick Google search covering the last two working days, this…

Sometimes it’s convenient to wrap up the big numbers for a headline (and the bigger the number, the better the headline, right?) but the fact is that it can be meaningless to a reader. Not saying I’m going to completely stop putting Big Numbers in headlines, but I’ll certainly think about whether I’m making it easier or harder for readers to decipher whether justice was done*. After all, a ten-strong gang jailed for a total of 100 years could well equate to10 years apiece, and each defendent might serve seven years of that sentence. Which is actually not that long.

* So well done Click Liverpool for a nice clear intro, which I didn’t spot it until after my screengrab.

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