Friday, 9 November 2012

Media Law, Lecture 6, Year Three - Court Reporting and Crime

Our sixth law lecture of the term looked at issues relating to reporting crime, and also covered prejudice, contempt of court and their effects on publishing material.

Many journalists consider knowledge of the court's and the legal system in general vital to their work, as often some of the most genuinely interesting and shocking stories are crime-related. On Winchester News Online, we regularly tackle a number of legal issues when reporting on stories sourced from Winchester Crown Court.

If a reporter fails to foresee legal issues and publishes content that breaks the law, careers can be ruined and jobs can be lost. 

Arguably one of the most important pieces of information to come out of the lecture, for me, was the 7 point list to follow during pre-trial reports. It's a list that sets forward a number of points to consider when publishing a story on a case that has become 'active'. A case becomes 'active', of course, when Police have made an arrest or have issued an arrest warrant. It can also become active when a summons has been issued by the magistrates.


Picture: Courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The following information can be published when the case you're reporting on becomes active:

1) Names of defendants, ages, addresses and occupations
2) The charges faced
3) The name of the court and the magistrate's name
4) The name's of the solicitors or barristers involved
5) The date and location of where the case is adjourned
6) Bail arrangements
7) Whether or not legal aid was given

Much of the lecture focused on fictional example cases, which was useful because it gave me a chance to apply my knowledge and the facts put forward in the lecture.

We took part in a fictional exercise concerning a story on an armed robbery. At the start of the activity, when the news had just become available, we were able to write up our articles on the situation in quite some depth. However, as the time after the incident went on and police developed their investigation, we were forced to report slightly less information. Once the men involved with the crime were charged, legally, what could be published by us changed. At this stage, it became more about factual accuracy and less about the description of the event itself. 

A good means of developing the story (whilst remaining legally safe) once the Police had issued an arrest would be to interview locals on their thoughts on the incident. As is constantly said during our debriefs on WINOL, news is about people.

It was emphasised in the lecture that two key issues associated with court reporting are prejudice and contempt of court.

Prejudice refers to the act of publishing information that could lead to an unfair trial or information that will affect the jury's decision. This was something we had to consider during the practical exercise on the shop robbery.

Contempt of court is defined in McNae's as material that:

"is published which creates a substantial risk of serious prejudice or impediment to particular legal proceedings which are active". 

Simply put, reporting information on those involved with the case once it becomes active (that has not been issued by the Police) is strictly forbidden and will have severe legal consequences for the writer if ignored. However, anything said by the Police can be reported. In our robbery example, once the men had been charged, part of my story read: "Police have arrested two men in connection with an armed robbery offence that took place earlier today in.."

If a reporter was to dig deeper for information that had not been released by the police by attempting to contact those involved in the case, this would be a clear example of contempt of court.

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