Once upon a time there were reporters in most law courts. Thirty years ago, one of them heard Cardiff’s Stipendiary Magistrate adjourn a case against a defendant with a recommendation which was certainly out of order. ‘Make sure you get a stiff bench’, said the fearsome Sir Lincoln Hallinan to his clerk. My colleague, the equally fearsome reporter John O’Sullivan, was on the phone to the South Wales Echo within minutes, dictating the story to the copy-typists we had in those far-off days. There was a tap on the door of the phone booth and the court usher invited O’Sullivan into Sir Lincoln’s chambers. ‘I’m sure we don’t need to make a fuss about this, John,’ said the Stipe. He’d seriously misjudged his man, who went on to pursue the story as far as the Lord Chancellor and an official rebuke for the stipendiary magistrate.
There couldn’t be a better example of the benefit to society of having the proceedings of our law courts covered in the local press. It’s probably not what the Magistrates’ Association had in mind when they went on the BBC today to bemoan the demise of court reporting. In fact John Howson, deputy chairman of the association, was mainly concerned that people should see that criminals are being punished. When he appeared on Radio 4’s You And Yours, he didn’t mention the alternative story – that the innocent are seen to be acquitted; nor the possibility that miscarriages of justice might be exposed. (www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/youandyours/)
What the discussion did do, though, was focus on one very important consequence of the decline in local journalism. Not a day has passed recently without more bad news. Regional papers have announced hundreds of job cuts; ITV wants to pull out of local news and is well on the way to achieving its aim; and the BBC (in the face of opposition from the regional press) has withdrawn ambitious plans for local video coverage on the web.
Reporting the courts and the decisions of local councils used to be the bedrock of local journalism. At the weekend, David Simon – creator of The Wire – warned about the consequences of the collapse of local papers in the United States. (www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/mar/27/david-simon-wire-newspapers)
“Oh, to be a state or local official in America over the next 10 to 15 years … To gambol freely across the wastelands of an American city, as a local politician! It’s got to be one of the great dreams in the history of American corruption.”
Simon, a former crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun, believes the web-based alternative can’t wait that long – we have to find a way to make it work much sooner. In some parts of the US a new model of local, community-based, web reporting is being explored. Here at the University of Glamorgan, we’re looking at it too. Watch this space!