Belfast Telegraph

The dangers of DIY reports from Northern Ireland's courts system

By Paul Connolly

One of the effects of reduced newsroom budgets is that less and less resource is deployed to covering the courts.

Personally speaking, I believe that any news outlet that does not cover the courts loses a key part of the mission to keep the public informed.

Court coverage - and the ability to accurately report from the courts - is one of the great differentiators between professional and amateur journalists (whether they go by the name of citizen journalists, bloggers or anything else). Trained journalists know how to cover the courts.

Most untrained ones don't.

It is a matter of how passionately editors believe in court coverage, and by extension open justice, that they jump up and down at any threat to it - often to the annoyance of judges.

But in these changing times, when funding models for news-gathering are so challenged, court coverage is declining. And declining severely.

So much so that some organisations are increasingly issuing their own Press releases about convictions they believe lend publicity to their interests (you won't, of course, hear a cheep when they lose a court case, but that's an article for another day).

Organisations that do this now include Government departments and agencies, the police and at least one major council (Belfast City).

Frankly, this practice raises many questions. Court reports by journalists - i.e. a reporter who has actually been present in the courtroom - attract what's known as legal 'privilege'. This means that the author and publisher of the report can't be sued.

But there's a catch. Under the law, including the 1996 Defamation Act, the report has to be "fair, accurate and contemporaneous". The key word here is "fair" - to me that means giving both sides of the story.

A journalist is trained to at the least to say whether the defendant denied the offence, or whether they pleaded guilty. And also, a flavour of the defendant's side of the story and/or pleas of mitigation; it was someone else, an honest mistake, out of character, etc.

So, being "fair" under the legislation means, to me at least, being balanced. But the statements from official bodies do not make any attempt at being fair.

As an example, a Press release from Belfast City Council last week named a man it says was convicted of illegal building works in the city centre. It said he was fined £750 in a case brought by the council itself.

The Press statement gave no indication of whether the man pleaded guilty or not guilty. Nor any mitigation.

No age was given for the defendant. What happens if someone of the same name - say his son - lives at the same address? His reputation will likely be at risk. If the man - whom I'm deliberately not naming due to the lack of balance - successfully appeals, will the City Council publicise this? Probably not.

As I said, Press releases like these are now more common. At least with the police (who tend not to name defendants) and Government departments, publishers are protected by privilege: there is less protection with statements from other bodies.

I'm not saying public bodies shouldn't issue such statements. But let's have a debate and perhaps agree a protocol.

This would protect the rights of everyone involved - defendants, publishers and the people who will inevitably foot the bill if something goes wrong: you, the taxpayer.

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