Readers' Editor: We are reporters, we are not censors ... nor judges
Court reporting is a staple of journalism. It's also a discipline that newspapers perform better than radio or TV, not least because they have more space to report the cross-examinations and other little melodramas that are the stuff of hearings.
It's often in these details that the interesting or newsworthy aspects of court cases lie.
But should editors censor matters that arise from hearings because they might be embarrassing or hurtful to people, including victims of crime?
That is the principle at the heart of a complaint this week over a report on June 2 headlined ‘Man jailed for robbing a prostitute’.
The bare facts are that Jonathan Robert McCloy (23), from Magheralone Road in Drumaness, was jailed for six years for the armed robbery of a woman.
Belfast Crown Court was told the woman had advertised her services as an ‘escort' in a downmarket tabloid and that McCloy — said to be a cocaine addict — extorted money from her at gunpoint and threatened to expose her activities, which would, he claimed, lead to a prison sentence for prostitution.
Undoubtedly, McCloy is a nasty piece of work and our streets are a better place as he contemplates his worth to society at Her Majesty's pleasure.
But what of his victim? Our reader raises the not-unreasonable charge that reporting the description of the victim as a prostitute was both “offensive and judgmental”. The victim was further disparaged, he adds, since the judge went out of his way |to describe the victim as “vulnerable”.
The point is reasonable, but it also goes to the heart of some fundamental principles.
Open justice. Confidence in the administration of the law. The principle that reports from courts — provided they are fair, accurate and contemporaneous — are protected from civil action.
And how exactly would you measure what is embarrassing or hurtful to one person, but not another?
It also raises the complex spectre of how in practice editors would actually censor court reports, should they so desire.
Had the description of the victim's circumstances been challenged in court, and had the Telegraph not reported that, then that would have been a different matter entirely. But that was not the case.
So, while I understand where our well-intentioned reader is coming from, the alternative — setting oneself up as court censor — is not contemplatable.
There is another striking point to this case: that is the bravery of a woman who came forward, determined to get a thug behind bars, even though she knew embarrassing details would likely come out in court.
She deserves our praise.