Readers' Editor: Why newspapers still court good old-fashioned trials
The acres of newsprint splurged on the Hazel Stewart and Colin Howell trials provide a timely opportunity to reflect on newspapers and their relationships with criminal trials, particularly sensational ones.
Why do editors and TV chiefs devote so much time, effort, space and resources to covering the lurid details of a tawdry murder case?
As starving refugees mass on the Libyan border, aren't there loftier stories to report upon? Are they, as the former PCC chairman Lord McGregor once remarked, merely “dabbling their fingers in the stuff of other people's souls”?
Well, yes and no. Circulation is obviously a factor in an editor's matrix. Also, the old debate on pubic interest versus what interests the public.
Newspapers should, and do, report the weighty matters of policy and politics. But they have a duty also to report on what interests the public.
Not everyone devours policy debates on EU enlargement, or the legal implications of the transition to GP consortia commissioning. And what a dull world it would be if that was the case.
But human drama? That holds fascination for all — as Derek Jacobi's King Lear reminds us in his Shakespeare masterclass at the Grand Opera House this week.
Big courtroom dramas really can capture the human condition in miniature — the passions and the jealousies, the loathing and loving, the self-deception and the self-sacrifice.
The pure theatre of a high-profile criminal trial is something to witness at first hand. The high points are the cross-examinations and The Wait For The Verdict.
This can be a great equaliser. Haughty barristers who've spent the entire trial sniffing at the scribbling rodents in the Press box will hesitantly edge over, coyly soliciting an opinion on the coming verdict. Most reporters will, however, admit to feeling somewhat voyeuristic. For always in one's mind is — or should be — that trials are about real people — a truism that can get elbowed aside by the cold mechanics of a courtroom. Real victims and real relatives are not something that should ever be overlooked.
For journalists, court reporting is also something of a mini-art form; to be honed early in the trade. I was glad to see the Telegraph resort to the old line-by-line accounts of cross-examinations. Shorthand-testing stuff, but gripping reading nevertheless.
It’s perhaps too early to gauge accurately Telegraph reader reaction to the admittedly saturation coverage. But so far my view, and the anecdotal evidence available, is that it was compelling and in-depth without descending into insensitivity. If you disagree, I’m sure you’ll make your views known.