‘And Nothing But The Truth’: The Law and Ethics of Court Reporting

How do the public get an accurate insight into the court room?

Image from unsplash.com / Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm

Most UK journalists are obliged to follow the Independent Press Standards Organisation (that’s IPSO, for short) Editors’ code of practice.

What is this code of practice, you ask? Well, IPSO themselves state:

“The Editors’ Code is a set of rules that newspaper and magazine industry members have agreed to accept. It sets the standards that newspapers and magazines can be held to account by IPSO and is part of the contract between IPSO and the newspapers and magazines it regulates.”

Clause 9 of the code surrounds the reporting of crime. These are the key aspects expected to be followed by journalists:

Created on canva.com / Graphic by Ahone Lane

The clause predominantly focuses on protecting those who may end up caught in the crossfire of the publicity surrounding the accused, with particular focus placed onto the experience of vulnerable children.

But what happens when publicity hits the court room?

Reporting in the courts

In her guide Law For Journalists: A Guide to Media Law, Frances Quinn states:

“One of the basic standards for a just and fair court system is that the workings and decisions of the courts should be open for the public to see.”

The public in its entirety cannot all enter the court room to witness cases on trial. So, this is where court reporters come in, attending the courts to note down every detail and piece of information, particularly arising from the case’s evidence.

These notes are then passed onto journalists, who use them to put together an accurate article in order for the public to have an insight into the said workings and decisions of the courts.

This isn’t to say that this type of reporting doesn't come without its restrictions though.

The Contempt of Court Act 1981 in the UK puts forward a strict liability rule, whereby any act considered to impede, prevent, or slant the course of justice is deemed a contempt of court. The rule only applies to publications, disallowing actions such as the use of recording devices in court, or the substantial risk of prejudicing the course of justice.

There is only one exception to this rule — when proceedings are not active. So, if an individual was on trial for murder for example, but is later acquitted or ultimately sentenced, this would mean the proceedings would no longer be active.

It’s extremely important that court reporters and journalists remain impartial to not only prevent them being held liable, but also to thwart any influence or mediation of the public’s beliefs and understanding of the case or individuals in question.

What’s going on in the courts in 2022?

I think it’s safe to say the Johnny Depp Vs Amber Heard defamation trial has been dominating headlines for several weeks now. Countless news organisations are reporting on it, and it has been trending all over social media; particularly the short-form video service TikTok, all because of the trials televised nature.

Actor Johnny Depp at the Berlinale 2020 / Image from wikimedia.commons.org / Photo by Harald Krichel

The Depp Vs Heard defamation trial is being live-streamed from Virginia’s Fairfax County Courthouse in the U.S, with the permitted use of cameras in the court room, allowing people worldwide to witness the proceedings.

Actress Amber Heard at the 2018 San Diego Comic Con International / Image from wikimedia.commons.org / Photo by Gage Skidmore

Since 1981, many state courts in the U.S allow electronic media into court rooms for recording purposes so long as it is authorised by the judge, and seen as appropriate within the circumstances. We have seen this in the past with famous court proceedings such as the OJ Simpson trial in 1995 where the former football star was acquitted of a double murder.

Livestream conducted by Sky News of the Depp Vs Heard Trial / Day 22

Millions of people are tuning in to the $50 million defamation trial, either catching it live, streaming it on YouTube, or watching collated clips on social media. Yet, for court cases present in the UK, we rely on court reporters and subsequent news articles to be informed about the proceedings as opposed to being able to watch visual documentation of it.

The Criminal Justice Act 1925 in the UK prohibits the taking of photographs in the courtroom; those who breach this held liable and fined.

Coinciding with the Depp Vs Heard proceedings, a British libel court case between footballers wives Rebekah Vardy and Coleen Rooney has recently been in the press, which I have drawn attention to over on my Twitter account.

In contrast to the U.S, this case — also known as the ‘Wagatha Christie’ case, has not been live-streamed or televised. It’s articles such as the following that court reporters and journalists compile to relay information to the public from sitting in on the trial.

Screenshot from Sky News Article: Wagatha Christie trial: Rooney admits Vardy trolling after infamous post was ‘disgusting’ / 16 May 2022

The article focuses on presenting objective facts in order to stick to the strict liability rule. It contains no visual media from the court room itself, though there have been court sketches circulating in other news reports and on Twitter.

There are also several direct quotes of what has been said in the court room, as opposed to paraphrasing — as certain language could influence public opinion and breach the contempt of court, despite having the choice in what they want to report.

It would be interesting to see if a difference in public opinion may have arisen if the Wagatha Christie trial was televised, particularly as the ongoings leading up to the trial occurred heavily on social media.

What should the future hold for court reporting?

Almost 12 years ago, court reporting was viewed as a ‘dying art.’ However, it is still the opinion of many that reporters covering the courts is of the upmost importance, particularly for the public’s sake, ultimately allowing true open justice.

Image from unsplash.com / Photo by Hami Moallemi

In IPSO Board Member Martin Trepte’s recent blog post from March, he discusses his views around court reporting.

“Covering the courts is fundamental to the principle of open justice — that justice is not just done but seen to be done.” — Martin Trepte

It will always be in the public’s interest to be transparently aware of the workings and decisions of the courts, regardless of where they are in the world and the ways in which they are subsequently reported on.

However, there are still risks and restrictions to court reporting, and so it’s important that publications get it right — something that a 2021 study by Richard Jones found is only truly possible with more funding to safeguard how reporters relay information to the public.

That being said, if the recording of court cases was authorised in the UK, then would these risks not be eliminated? A point to ponder, maybe.

But, the question I now pose to you, is whether or not there should be laws in the UK that prohibit libel cases to be recorded or broadcasted, or whether the U.S should be following in the strict liability rule’s footsteps…

Thank you for reading! It would be great to hear your thoughts about this question in the comments.

Be sure to keep up to date with my social media channels; Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to catch my future blog posts and thoughts about the world of crime journalism!

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