There is no shortage of words when an eye-catching criminal or civil trial takes place somewhere in the world. I should know; I have written hundreds of thousands of them over the past 40 years or so. The wordcraft of outstanding lawyers was the subject of a recent My Word column. But what a shame it would be if eloquence displayed in the courtroom were recorded only in legal documents seen by few. If we remember the brilliance of an advocate's closing speech, or the highlights of an incisive cross-examination, it is because they were captured in contemporaneous media reports.
At its best, court reporting is a great journalistic skill. The Press Association, Britain's domestic news agency, once maintained a sizeable team devoted to organising, covering and editing the proceedings of the Royal Courts of Justice in central London. The output was devoured by newspapers and other news outlets throughout the land, and beyond. Each day's developments in any case deemed sufficiently important would be reported in detail, and at impressive speed, by those occupying seats in the press boxes.
Whole sections of the court's deliberations would be reproduced in as close to verbatim fashion as the reporter's shorthand would permit. As a reporter who scraped through a Pitman's examination at 100 words per minute, I have watched in admiration at confrères able to keep up with the fastest speakers. Readers could learn much about a case and its characters from a quoted sequence of evidence or cross-examination, the barristers's questions given in full along with the witness or defendant's answers. Subsequent instalments were eagerly awaited.
Unfortunately, despite the extensive coverage given to such cases as the Michael Jackson child abuse trial, and murder trials involving OJ Simpson and, this month, the American student Amanda Knox (one of three convicted in Italy of killing a young British woman, Meredith Kercher), court reporting has generally become patchier. The decline began with a growing belief among editors, under the influence of marketing people, that readers wanted newspaper content to be less and less demanding. The economic ills of the press have steepened that decline.
Courts are still covered by the press, because they are such a ready source of news. Only on rare occasions, however, can readers expect the depth and continuity that was a common feature of previous times. The trend towards the use of "background" and "colour" has increased to the extent that the reporting of the evidence and submissions often takes second place, especially in "major" trials, to descriptive writing, analysis and material gathered outside the courtroom (interviews with witnesses or victims, for example).
In truth, a case may be considered "major" without the issues being genuinely important, and that was as true in the past as it is now. Trials do not attract media attention only when it is in the public interest for their details to be published; many are covered because they are interesting to the public, which is not the same thing. I have some words of caution for newspaper or blog readers, radio listeners and television viewers: do not form fixed views on the issues decided by the courts on the basis of short press reports that cannot possibly convey all that has been said. All the same, good journalism still offers the best mechanism we have for applying checks and balances to the judicial process.
When courts make mistakes, the press can help to ensure these are remedied. Some grave miscarriages of justice have been corrected because reporters, perhaps with the help and encouragement of concerned lawyers, have taken the trouble to investigate inconsistencies in the evidence or shortcomings in the way cases have been conducted. And in doing so, they have performed a vital social role which, I hope, will never be consigned to oblivion by economic constraints and changing editorial appetites.
Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org