Newspapers, particularly locals, tend not to cover
courts any more. But are both they AND the
justice system losing out? DAVID BANKS reports

THE MAN from security firm G4S stared blankly at me. “Are you a magistrate?” he asked.“

No, I am a member of the public. A journalist, actually.”

He looked baffled (and told me later that he had “only seen one of your lot three times in the last 18 months, when a rape comes up, usually”).“Is there a magistrates court sitting this morning?” I persisted.He blinked and stepped forward, taking a look up and down the street as if to reassure himself that this wasn’t some Candid Camera stunt.

“Not exactly,” he began. “Well, actually there should be but there were only two cases today and one of them has been put off ‘til God knows when.”

“And the other?” I asked hopefully.

“Two o’clock this afternoon,” he said. “But I wouldn’t bother if I were you. It’s a case of a man from Bodmin accused of committing a motoring offence on Skye. It’s being held here [to protect my source I will not say exactly where ‘here’ is!] because we are the nearest court to Scotland, if that makes any sense?” The geo-judicial logic certainly seemed to have left him mystified.

“They’ll likely get a letter from him saying ‘Okay, I did it but I live in Bodmin’ and they’ll give him a fifty quid fine and that’ll be that,” ruled my amateur Mr Justice Cocklecarrot.

We talked for a while, the G4S courtroom custodian and I, as an icy wind blew down the street. But I found it almost impossible to explain to him my interest in reporting such events as magistrates court hearings. A lot seemed to be baffling him this day. Had I nothing better to do with my time than sit in a courtroom? he seemed to be asking. “It won’t be too popular with the punters,” he suggested.

magistrate-2It never was, as I recall: in my junior reporter days on the Warrington Guardian in the Sixties I was offered the occasional quid to ‘forget’ a conviction, omit a report or ‘bury’ a case in my notebook. They were usually petty thefts or shoplifting: cases which carried a social stigma. Sadly, the very act of offering a bribe guaranteed that publication, however brief, would be the outcome, “to protect the paper’s good name for honesty as much as anything,” as my old news editor told me the first time I revealed to him what had occurred.
Publication of court reports, I insisted to the man from G4S, was essential to keep both miscreant and magistrate honest. Public shaming had been part of the penalty for centuries. As a retired editor, I told him, I was concerned at recent reports (summarised efficiently at that coverage of courts of all kinds across the country have plummeted over the last few years.
More than half of all local newspaper editors polled acknowledged that courts are not being adequately covered in their own papers, according to new research by the website Justice Gap. Equally disturbingly, research by Brian Thornton, a senior journalism lecturer at Winchester University, also revealed a 40% drop in the number of court stories reported on a single day this year compare to the same date four years ago.
The courtroom custodian yawned and nodded politely, still obviously baffled at my concern.
I tried interrogation: were court lists of upcoming cases published or displayed anywhere in advance? The internet, perhaps? Or a recorded telephone message disclosing when the court was sitting?
“Dunno,” he replied, glumly. “You could always try next door. . .” (and here he jerked a thumb in the direction of the town’s police station) “. . . but I don’t think they could tell you any more than I can: magistrates court Thursdays and sometimes Tuesdays, civil court Wednesdays, corner’s Monday and Friday.
“You coming back at 2pm, then?” he asked.
I thought for a moment; driving back home for four hours meant would men I’d have done a 30-mile round trip which would need to be repeated if I were to return to hear the Bodmin driver’s plea by letter to a motoring offence allegedly committed on Skye. Hardly grist to my local e-newspaper’s local coverage.
“Nah,” I said. “Might be back on Thursday, though.And I just might do that. ‘Who’s-up-for-what-and-what-he-got’ was always reason enough to buy a local newspaper back in the day when the press cared as much about providing a public service as making a profit.
Could that and other minutiae like council and committee meetings, tides, duty chemists and lighting-up times be the secret to wooing back lost local readerships?
I’ll let you know. . .


  1. Part of my basic training as a BBC journalist involved my being sent to the Old Bailey to view the life of a court reporter. In one case I was taking notes, then looked up and saw that the judge was looking towards the press gallery. After a while, I became convinced he was looking at me. He handed a note to the clerk and pointed in my direction. The clerk handed me the note. “That young journalist looks like Charles Dickens,” it read. When he winked at me, I made my excuses and left. Dickens himself started his writing career as a court reporter. I didn’t.


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