Declining coverage of Britain's courts is having serious repercussions on levels of public confidence in the justice system, media experts warn. The resultant information deficit has caused the public to doubt court activity. Media lecturer, Mark Hanna, maintains that immediate action must be taken to increase and improve reporting in Crown and magistrates' courts.
Hanna, a former journalist with years of court reporting experience, voiced his concerns at a meeting held to recognise the publication of the 20th edition of McNae's Essential Law for Journalists, which he co-authored.
"Twenty years ago in any major city there would be a reporter for the Crown Court and another reporting covering the magistrates' courts," he said. "That is not happening any more."
There are a number of possible factors responsible for the decline. The current economic climate has necessitated dramatic cut backs in staff and resources, which has had effects on most areas of reporting. Additionally, it could be the legal system itself that is discouraging journalists from entering the courtroom. Court procedural systems and reporting regulations are becoming increasingly complex, which may be dissuading editors from sending young or trainee journalists.
The difficulties lie primarily in the conjuncture between privacy laws and the development of the Reynolds defence of responsible journalism, maintains senior media lecturer, David Banks, Hanna's co-author on McNae. One standard of the Reynolds defence maintains that the any reporter wanting to publish allegations should present first to the concerned individual or firm, to give them the opportunity to present their case. The concerned party would not be able to get an injunction to prevent publication on grounds of defamation. However, the extension of privacy laws has given individuals the ability to obtain to story blocking injunctions on the basis that the subject matter was private, or that the information had been obtained by the journalist through the violation of an obligation to confidence or privacy.
The concerns that "privacy has become the new libel", thus increasing the chances of court action being taken against reporters writing about allegations, have been voiced before. This not only dissuades journalists from covering local court cases, to the detriment of public awareness and institutional accountability, but also discourages reporters from pursuing investigative pieces.
Source: Press Gazette