As I listen to the latest on the phone-hacking scandal, the select committee, the investigation by a judge and so on – I reflect on the hoops us journalists who work in television have to go through to tell the simplest of stories.
Thank goodness we can reveal wrongdoing...
I’m not complaining but when working in television, every word of a script is scrutinised.
Only today, I’ve started script-writing for a half-hour programme about a mental health condition. Some interviewees will be talking anonymously as they don’t want everyone to know about their problems.
Many people feel that they want to speak out – but the high profile nature of television is such that they fear ridicule, they fear exposure, they fear prejudice. So sometimes we agree to conceal identity, even if legally we don’t have to (such as with victims of sexual assault). Having done that we still have to jump through legal hoops.
For example, a person criticises his local health authority for what he perceives is a lack of treatment made available to him to deal with a mental health condition This man will not be named – and his local health authority will not be named. The only thing the viewer will know is that this is a man and he comes from an area within the UK. That’s it.
But I still have to put his criticisms to the relevant health authority, give that health authority a right of reply, even though I will probably not name that health authority.
If that health authority gives us a statement I’ll have to consider, with a lawyer, what I should use in the script. If that health authority insisted on a filmed interview, we’d have to seriously consider that demand. It’s possible that we’d have to do it, even though that would throw a spanner in the schedule.
As we hear stories about the seemingly out-of-control practices at a national newspaper some years ago (not now) and suspicions that other publications indulged – to the detriment of individuals – we in television spend hours ensuring a right of reply for organisations which are not going to be even named.
However as I watched new Cowboy Builders tonight, I’m thrilled that we can do programmes like this. We can expose people who wreck the lives of others, quite literally. I love seeing the passion of Dominic Littlewood in hunting down those who are cowboys in construction.
I know that he’s got people helping him with that. But I’ve worked with him in the past and I know that his anger is quite genuine. He really does care. I also know about the kind of scrutiny that will go on behind the scenes and the amount of hoops which had to be jumped through to even get him on the road after those cowboy builders.
Please don’t assume that we journalists are out there, writing what we like, using illegal methods to bring things into the public arena. It’s simply not true.
There’s been much debate in media circles about the growing use of Twitter in court rooms.
Attending court, especially if it’s a high profile case, is interesting and bizarrely exciting. So it’s not surprising that people involved might want to send messages out there to talk about what’s going on.
When I give talks about working in the media, one of the most frequent questions I get asked is – what interesting court cases have you attended? Any murders? The answers are ‘loads’ and ‘yes’.
Clearly I’m a huge social media fan and I like Twitter and Facebook and talking online – but one does have to be careful.
Journalists in court will hear many, many things that they are legally not allowed to be made public – sometimes things which are so harrowing that they don’t want to make it public.
I know this was true in the Fred & Rosemary West case as a close friend of mine covered this story from beginning to end. Journalists came together to make a conscious decision not to report on some very distressing details even when they were allowed to do so.
Reporting legally from a court in the UK requires specialist knowledge and training in how courts work and what can and cannot be said.
In my experience, good journalists will have more detailed knowledge of this than the occasional barrister/solicitor. I have had a stand-up row with at least one barrister about my freedom to attend a hearing in a family court – I won.
Qualified journalists know this stuff and, if they are unsure about any part of a process, they know who to ask.
Being in contempt of court is no small matter. It can lead to imprisonment and could cause a case to collapse altogether.
But Twitter almost allows us to become ‘citizen journalists’ and even lawyers like to have a Tweet.
These days with far fewer journalists in employment, quite often there won’t be a reporter in court so anyone can technically ‘have a go’.
Now being a journalist is not rocket science, we don’t have special rights, we are simply representatives of the public.
But courts are a special case. Some people involved are protected eg. Rape victims, children, those under witness protection, victims of blackmail. These names are often read out in court and put on the charge sheet – but journalists cannot make them public. Would you know that?
Court orders are often put in place in a case (involving children for example) at a preliminary hearing, but if you go along to a court case in the public gallery for a full hearing later on, you might not know this.
Ignorance is no defence – but who would think of checking what court orders are in force if they are not journalists? Would you know where to look for a list of relevant court orders or who to ask?
And if a lawyer says ‘bear in mind there’s a Section 39 order in place for this defendant/witness’ , how many people know what that means? (must not name child, give address or school).
I’m not saying that use of Twitter in court rooms should be banned, I could never say that – I’m just saying be very careful.
Judges are more and more aware of social media risks around court cases now. They will warn jurors not to discuss details of a case and include social media sites within their warning. But this will not extend to the public gallery, where people may come and go all of the time.
Some commentators on the media industry believe that the use of Twitter around court proceedings will lead to live TV coverage. In some ways such explicit exposure could be seen to be good in terms of punishment for a guilty defendant, in others it’s even more harrowing for vulnerable witnesses or for those who are later found to be innocent.
The key message is this – be careful, be balanced and use common sense. It’s not in anyone’s interest for a court case to collapse because of a Tweet or two.
Having a twitter in court could cost you dear.....