Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Can blogs create change?

Posted in Adam, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on November 2, 2010

Journalism aside, do blogs make a difference?

Today, two victories for two campaigners who have been using blogs to get their message across, heaping pressure on the establishment and building a community of support.

Fighting the law…

Firstly, in Hull in the North East of England, John Hirst also known as the Jailhouse Lawyer won a victory he has been waiting five years for, with reports in the press that the British government have (reluctantly) decided to give prisoners the vote. It comes after John won a landmark case in the European Court of Human Rights back in 2005, which ruled Britain’s disenfranchisement of prisoners violated their human rights.

Now whatever you think about whether prisoners should have the vote, John’s legal victory did not mean a change in the law like it should have. The previous Labour government stalled on the issue quite shamefully, and led to people like me making photofilms like this.

For a background on this story, check out this film I shot for the VJ Movement back in May 2010.

From his small terrace house in Hull, John persisted with his campaign and his blog became his main voice. He blogged everyday and built up a not insignificant following. He’s been interviewed on countless news programmes, and as I said earlier this year, he’s even been able to make money from advertising deals on the blog.

…and fighting companies

[UPDATE December 2010: WordPress took down the original blog, but it has now been moved to this address.]

Secondly, and closer to home, my mum and her partner Toni have finally been awarded a claim from financial company Welbeck Wealth, after a persistent campaign via a blog. Owed several thousand pounds, and ignored via the usual routes, they started Welbeck Group, I Want My Money Back!, and blogged regularly about their treatment.

Toni’s clever use of SEO and a growing readership soon put the blog in the top three results when you Googled Welbeck Wealth. As you can imagine, this irked the company somewhat, who – quite remarkably – threatened to sue for defamation (a claim they soon retracted). More importantly, Toni’s blog brought out a community of other unhappy customers, and even at one stage, a whistleblower, who gave her an interview. She was, in some ways, acting like a consumer journalist on this one story.

And today, the company finally paid out – again, reluctantly.

Neither victory would have been possible without the dogged persistence of both John and Toni, who kept going, even when it seemed no-one else was interested anymore. But online publishing – free, quick and easy – gave them another weapon to change the world.

Can blogs create change? Maybe, just maybe.

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.

The people who refuse to get screwed by the system

Posted in International Development by Adam Westbrook on September 14, 2008

For anyone who doesn’t know I recently moved ‘up north’ to start a new job, working in Hull. So far, so good, and already it’s proving eventful and interesting. Two experiences in the last week have got me thinking about the state of modern Britain, and what appears to be our rapidly deminishing rights and freedoms.

In the dog house

On Monday, I was sent a report from a freelance court reporter in Hull about a case which had just been thrown out of the courts. 57 year old John Hirst, from Hull, an ex-prisoner,  prison reform lawyer – and well known blogger – had been hauled before the judges after his dog was accused of biting a park warden.

When John appeared in court, the prosecution were able to offer no evidence and the judge duly threw out the case.

But not before John had been arrested and questioned. And not before it cost the taxpayer a rather large amount of money (John told me he reckons it’s about £20,000).

Speaking to John on the phone he was “livid” about what had happened and how the case had been allowed to have gotten so far. If it had gone as far as a trial, then it would have cost even more. But there are some other things that worry me about the story.

First up is the supposedly heavy handed response from the authorities. John told me six police officers came to his house after the complaint was made, handcuffed him and took him to a police station. His dog, Rocky, was separated from him and kept at the police station. What defence does any citizen have when this kind of thing happens?

Luckily the justice system came through, but there’s another worry too.

John called me again later in the week, concerned there had been no response from the authorities. True, Hull City Council had refused to comment, saying the police led the prosecution. So I want to find out what the police files on this say, but doing a bit of reading up this weekend it’s not looking promising.

Heather Brooke, the well known journalist and freedom of information campaigner, says Britain’s supposedly “open” legal system is the opposite. Trying to get access to what should be public files is near impossible. Still I won’t let that stop me trying. Let’s see if the FOI Act can uncover more…

Your invite’s in the post

Less than 24 hours later I found myself in Hedon, a small village outside Hull. Today though it was hosting some big(ish) political names. Namely the Environment Secretary Hillary Benn, and local MPs Graham Stuart and David Davis.

Mr Benn had been invited up to talk flooding, and specifically why the EA wants to flood acres of farmland instead of paying for flood defences. We, the assembled media, were there too, hoping to get a soundbite off the Minister.

Waiting outside Hedon’s small town hall, I was approached by a man called Simon Taylor. He lives on a small piece of reclaimed land called Sunk Island. He, along with 800 others were probably going to loose their homes to the Humber River within the next 20 years. That almost certainty meant they couldn’t sell their homes, and are going to have to stay to watch it happen.

A charming and polite man, tall with a bristly moustache, Simon was angry because he was standing outside the meeting, and not in it. The hour long coflab, involved the three politicians, local councillors and a select group of farmers. But the ordinary people hadn’t been invited along. “I’m going to lose my home, and I haven’t got a voice,” he told me.

I chatted to Simon and interviewed him about his worries. But later on he did something which few people would bother to do, or be brave enough to do.

Sure enough, Hillary Benn emerged to give a brief statement to the press before speeding off to his next gig. That left Stuart and Davis left to show off about how they’d got a government bigwig to come all the way up to Hull. But their words were interrupted when to my left, a voice raised above theirs and said “excuse me, why wasn’t anyone invited. We’re going to lose our homes – I think we would have liked to have had a word with the minister.” Like the fiercest of political reporters Simon pressed the question and wouldn’t let it go.

Flustered, Graham Stuart admitted it was a problem of space rather than anything else, and promised a public meeting was going to be held next month. But will Hillary Benn be there? Who knows.

But Simon’s stand is important: denied a voice by modern democracy he persisted and fought to get an explanation. Without him there, the politicians and the media would have skimmed over Sunk Island, and the 800 people would certainly have lost their voice.

Two people then, screwed by the system, and who fought it – and arguably won. In the space of two days. In one city. How many more cases like this are there? And how many don’t get heard?

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