Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Covering court cases: the questions you were afraid to ask

Posted in Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 26, 2009

Journalists undergoing training get excellent tuition these days on media law. The difference between libel and slander, section 39, contempt of court, jigsaw ID, all that.

The idea: to leave the course with an instinctive knowledge of when a story isn’t legally sound. Some alarm should go off in your mind.

All well and good, but just 2 weeks after finishing my training, in June 2007, I found my way to court for the first time, on my own,  covering the sentencing of a woman who’d been convicted for dumping her stillborn baby on the banks of a river.

It hit me then: I knew the law – but I sure as hell didn’t have a clue how to cover a court case.  The practicalities. So everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned on the job, covering trials for murder, rape, fraud, armed robbery you name it for nearly two years.

The questions you were afraid to ask (or never got told)

How do I find out about court cases?

To find out if a case is due to appear in a given court, on a given day, the online source Courtserve is a good first stop. You can browse cases by court, although the next day listings won’t appear until mid-afternoon the day before.

Every Crown and Magistrates Court has a listings department; it’s good practice to call them to confirm the appearance as often changes are made at the last minute.

Finally there is no substitute for maintaining a thorough court diary (court jester) on your newsdesk. Every time a crime hits the headlines, note the arrest and follow up subsequent appearances.

What is the legal process?

Keeping it (very) simple: once someone has been charged they will appear at their local Magistrates court, and depending on the seriousness of the crime, it will be sent to Crown Court. There is often at least one Preliminary Hearing where details like the defendant’s name and address are confirmed.

Then comes the Plea and Case Management Hearing (or PCMH) this is where the defendant will plead “guilty” or “not guilty.” If it’s the former it goes straight to sentencing, if it’s the latter, a date will be set for trial – and a window for that trial to take place.

The trial itself will take place: the jury sworn in, then opening statements, before the prosecution and defense have full blow at all the evidence with witnesses galore. Both sides sum up, before the judge sends out the jury. After deliberation lasting hours to days, they return a verdict. At which point the judge adjourns the case while he decides a sentence. He may also ask for psychiatric reports to be prepared which can delay the process.

The sentence is given, and case closed.

justice

What should I wear in court?

I would always recommend wearing something vaguely smart, but I’ve never been kicked out for wearing trainers and jeans. It’s no worse than the relatives of those appearing will turn up in.

What can I take into court?

Into the courtroom itself you can take your bag,  a pen and notebook. Phones are allowed but for the love of God, turn it to silent (be paranoid about this!).

Broadcasters: you will have to surrender your mics, cameras to the security desk. I recommend approaching them with eye contact and a smile and the line “I need to hand this over to you” If you leave it for them to find it in your bag, then it gives them a major lecture-licence which we could all do without.

Where am I supposed to sit?

Every courtroom has a press gallery, usually in the ‘pit’ of the courtroom. There’s also the public gallery, but press is preferable because you can swap notes with other reporters.

What happens if I arrive late or need to leave early?

People are allowed to come and go from a courtroom, but it is customary to turn and give the judge a respectful nod as you leave or enter. At some stages, arriving or leaving will be banned.

How do court rooms work?

When you arrive you’ll go through a security check, often with a metal detector. A frisking isn’t unusual. Broadcasters, handover your recording equipment.

Then there’s a lobby, with access to all the court rooms. You’ll see all sorts in here:

  • A group of people looking scruffy: normally the family/friends of the defendant, and not unusually the defendant themselves.
  • People dressed smart, looking nervous or crying: often witnesses about to spill all.
  • Smart looking people sitting next to them: the detective on the case, hoping the witness says the right thing.
  • Very smart people in a gown: the clerk of the court: They’ll call in witnesses and announce the start of proceedings in a certain courtroom.
  • And the people you’ll probably want to ID the fastest: other journalists. Make friends-you’ll need to share notes and know you’re in on the right case!

I’m in the court building but I don’t know what room I’m supposed to be in, what do I do?

Navigate your way round with the flatscreen monitors dotted around. There’s at least one in the lobby, listing all the cases due that day (by defendant’s name, case number, case stage, place and time).

Each courtroom usually has a room specific monitor outside it.

Still you’ll need to keep your wits about you – there’s nothing worse than realising you’ve gone and sat in on the wrong case.

How do I find out if there are any reporting restrictions?

Normally there’s a note on the press bench. Again, this where it’s useful to make friends with other hacks – especially PA or the local paper. They’ll tell you if there’s anything you should know about.

Who can I talk to for help?

Your afformentioned journo friends. Also you can usually approach the court clerk at an appropriate moment, or one of the council. Every court also has at least one attached freelance court reporter who files copy for organisations who can’t be there. Living in the building they’ll tell you everything and anything – but be warned, they earn their living on passing on court copy, and a reporter present = one less sale.

Will I be upset?

You may be. On a murder or sexual assault case the details are graphic and unrelenting. Be prepared for sex assualt cases in particular, when the charges are often listed by each individual ‘penetration’ (which is then described). And you’ll hear bad language all over the shop, including from barristers and the judge (when reading out witness statements).

Am I allowed to approach anyone?

On a big case, you might want to interview the police on the case or the family of the victim. There’s no problem with this, but use your common sense and tact. Courts are very distressing places for some people.

What are good questions to ask?

If you’re looking for that extra scoop or new angle, try and speak to the officer who tried the case after verdict (they’ll be at court). Were there any previous convictions you can now report? By arrangement the families may give a statement or take questions outside court. This is usually done with arrangement with the police press office.

What happens if I get any grief?

I’ve never gotten grief from someone involved in a specific case. The only resistance you’re likely to encounter is – bizarrely – from the people who work in courts. For some reason, no-one’s ever told them the important role journalists play in justice and democracy, and you’re seen as a nosey parker.

The answer: remember Lady Justice with her two scales. Justice is to be done and seen to be done. If you need to give a (minor) court official a reminder on this, all the better.

Pirates ahoy!

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on April 20, 2007

Is there a battle raging in our airwaves?
A study by the UK media regulator Ofcom published yesterday showed that there are as many as two hundred pirate radio stations in Britain; half of them are based in London.

But the survey of three London boroughs – Hackney, Haringey and Lambeth  – shows that they’re becoming increasingly popular: around a quarter of people in those areas regularly tune into illegal stations:

  • 25% of these listeners tune in for the non-english programming
  • 16% tune in for the unique music

Last month I produced a short radio package on pirate radio in London for my coursework at City University, speaking to Ofcom, LBC and ex-pirate station Voice of Africa Radio.

It’s available online – click here.

Virginia Tech coverage: enough now

Posted in Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on April 19, 2007

Four days after a troubled student gunned down more than thirty of his fellow students and colleagues and it’s still all out war as far as the networks are concerned. Here in Britain it has cooled off a little bit, but stateside there’s little other news.

And it is with great reluctance that I use the word “overkill” to describe the coverage, not least because of the terrible pun. But there’s not many other words to describe it.

VJ David Dunkley Gyimah had the point nailed on his blog as early as Tuesday, but his concerns have proved even more correct. Cho Seung Hui has gone from a depressed student to a “madman” overnight. In what seems utterly remarkable to me, CNN actually has a jimmy-jib rigged up on the V.T. campus to get sweeping shots from high and low. And it was compounded this morning with the delivery and broadcast of letters, pictures and videos from the killer himself: creepy and haunting, Cho’s seriousness is undermined slightly by his vocal resemblance to Keano Reeves.

Journalists are used to increasing “news management” from press officers and the good ones battle against it. Now, we’ve all fallen for news management by a mass killer.

On CNN International this morning, the script towards the end of an hour of programming went – with no irony whatsoever – like this:

“Your emails have been pouring into us here at CNN. Dan in the Netherlands says: ‘The killer’s video adds nothing to the police enquiry and adds only to the suffering of the families. It worries me that it might inspire another teenager to do something similar like Cho was inspired by Columbine. The networks have gone too far and should stop showing the video constantly.’

Don’t forget to keep sending your emails…meanwhile continuous coverage of the massacres in Virginia continue after the break….”

Audiences on both sides of the Atlantic are clearly both tiring of the coverage and seeing through the hyperbole and journalese that the writers have flung our way. Several times already I’ve heard and seen some of the golden rules of news writing and reporting broken in the race for the biggest yank to the heart strings.

In comparison to the hundred or so people who lost their lives in Iraq yesterday it doesn’t make sense. Will they get each of their names and photos slowly faded onto screen? Will they get their stories read out to the world? Nope.

“No one disputes that this was a major story, and one needing sensitive handling. But as usual you and the other media went over the top in the reporting of it” reads one comment on the BBC News website.

“Seriously, can’t we do better?” says someone else on the NBC blog (via Adrian Monck), “Isn’t it time for news to be news, not endless, repetitive wallpaper that at once offends and numbs?”

Clapham shooting: the interest continues

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on February 16, 2007

The quiet South London estate I’ve been living on for the past five months has become an extraordinary hive of media and police activity. The far entrance, near the high street, which was the original spot for reporters has been sealed off, and someone figured out the next morning that the best location was the small car park inside the estate, which my flat overlooks.

So today there have been 5 satellite trucks parked outside and at least 2 TV crews doing live 2-ways from near Billy Cox’s home. A pile of flowers have been growing today as well, and joining police and journalists have been scores of locals coming to pay their respects.

Interestingly I’ve seen a lot more gangs in the area today – that’s to say groups of teenagers in hoodies etc. They’re not normally from around here, so I guess they’ve come to pay their respects to (as one tribute put it) a fallen soldier.

Apparently there are several big gangs around South London. There’s the Peckham Boys and the Young Peckham Boys, Man Dem Crew and Peel Dem Crew – they’re the closest to Clapham – plus the Ghetto Boys near Lewisham and the appropriately posh sounding South Man Syndicate operating in Tooting Bec.

None of the gangs visiting Fenwick Place tonight seem threatening; rather they’re here to pay their respects and move on. Or it could be the fact that you’re never more than 10 feet away from a police officer.

It’s interesting that the media glare is still here so much – 15 year old Billy Cox’s body was taken away yesterday, and the story has moved on now to the government response. But BBC News and ITV London both got hold of teenagers from the estate today who were surprisingly willing to talk on camera. The juxtaposition with BBC posh man Daniel Boetcher was odd to say the least.

They usually say communities “unite in grief” during times like this. People from Fenwick Place are coming together but, it seems, more to watch the TV reporters than to mourn together.

Certainly Wednesday’s killing has shocked this relatively quiet and crime free estate. It looks rough from the outside, and we all moved in with some trepidation – but this is the first incident in five months and as a resident in the middle, I don’t feel any less safe after this weeks sad events than I did before.

[edit: and just minutes after I posted this entry, the TV trucks have all moved away. The three kids from the family on the floor below us are back out, happily playing football in the carpark.]

Clapham shooting: close to home

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media by Adam Westbrook on February 14, 2007

A teenager’s been shot and killed in Clapham – the third victim of gang violence in South London in 10 days. This latest killing has happened yards from my flat earlier this afternoon.

It happened just before four o’clock this afternoon, and the story made it to air not long after 9. Several satellite trucks are parked around the back of my estate, Fenwick Place, in Clapham North.

The scene by the police corden Clapham North

Police have sealed off most of the estate, and as I write forensic tests are being carried out before the teenager’s body is removed from another flat.

Fenwick Place, Clapham, London

It’s brought London’s spiralling gun crime close to home. Just over a week ago a sixteen year old was killed at an ice rink down the road and a week ago today another teenager was shot in his bed in Peckham…where Damilola Taylor died 7 years ago.

Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair has called an emergency meeting tomorrow. Gun crime in South London it seems has gotten out of control. But it’s not something that bothers many people…here’s the scene outside the Falcon Pub inches from the police corden. Plenty of people are happy to head out for a drink or two at a crime scene.

The Falcon pub, Fenwick Place, Clapham

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