When, recently, a popular radio and TV presenter died, several tabloid newspapers splashed their front pages with the news that Terry Wogan had lost his “secret battle with cancer”. The implication was that he, together with his medical team and close family, had entered into a “conspiracy of silence” to deprive the press of the valuable news that a prominent public figure was suffering a terminal illness.
It’s probably an exaggeration to suggest that the papers were actually resentful of having been robbed of what would have been a scoop, had one of them got it ahead of the others. It’s more likely that in using the word “secret” they were just resorting to the sort of lazy cliche-led journalism they used when describing Wogan (as they do anyone suffering a terminal illness) as “brave”.
The true position is that Wogan kept his illness private, as he was entitled to do. And the same is true when family disputes involving minors or the disclosure of confidential information are heard in private, ie without the court being open to the public. This can include decisions involving the adoption, fostering, or arrangements as to contact with and residence of children. The fact that the proceedings are heard in private does not mean they are “secret”, or that justice (or injustice) is being administered “behind closed doors”. Yet, time and again, this is the picture served up by the newspapers.
It’s not just laziness. It’s actually a lie, perpetuated by those who prefer to see the family justice system as a giant conspiracy. The truth, if anyone is interested, is that hearings conducted in private are usually still open to journalists, provided they are accredited to cover private hearings in the Family Courts. Accreditation is straightforward, especially if you belong to the National Union of Journalists or one of other recognised organisations, including the BBC, ITV, Sky etc. You just apply to the UK Press Card Authority. There may be limitations on what you write at the time of the hearing, but once the judgment is published, subject to any limitations imposed in the judgment itself (eg as to anonymisation of the parties) you can write about the case.
Moreover, under current practice guidance from the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, issued more than two years ago, courts now publish written judgments in family cases heard in private. They can be found on the freely accessible website of the British and Irish Legal Information Institute (BAILII) and (less consistently) on that of the Judiciary.
It’s true that some judges are less enthusiastic in their implementation of the publication guidance than others, and this is something in respect of which we hope there will be more work in the next few months. But the idea that decisions about children are being taken in “secretive” courts is, frankly, rubbish. It is particularly rubbish to suggest that there is an overall “culture of secrecy” about such decision-making, as was suggested this week in an article in The Spectator, headlined “Beware the baby-snatchers“. This peddled a number of the usual cliches, including the idea that it was hard to get a general picture of the circumstances in which babies might be taken into care because
“Reporting restrictions are often in place and it is normally illegal to reveal court proceedings, or even the judgment.”
This is nonsense. Even if individual cases cannot be reported by reason of temporary or permanent restrictions, it is not normally illegal to reveal the fact that they are happening, providing no names are disclosed, and it is certainly not illegal to reveal a published judgment. In any case, it would not be difficult to conduct general research about care proceedings based on the numerous hearings to which an accredited reporter could gain access and the many, many judgments available on BAILII for any journalist worth their salt to peruse at leisure. The effort involved is, of course, slightly more than recycling the cliches and conspiracy theories of agenda-led “campaigners”, and this is why, we suspect, sections of the press do not appear to have caught up with what is actually happening in the family courts.
The importance of good court reporting, and its recent decline, were emphasised in a speech at the Old Bailey this week, given by the Evening Standard’s specialist court reporter, Paul Cheston, on his retirement after 28 years with the paper, 23 of them dedicated to covering the Central Criminal Court.
As reported in the Press Gazette,
“Cheston, who previously worked for the Diss Express, Middlesbrough Evening Gazette and Press Association, also spoke of the journalism industry’s “sad trend away from specialist court reporting”.
He said: “What happens in Her Majesty’s courts and in Her Majesty’s name should be of paramount importance to everyone in the land. Not only in legal and penal terms but in news values and – it just happens to be – cracking everyday drama.
“But only my paper and the Financial Times have a specialist court reporter. Partly I fear because they are expensive to train and difficult to find someone with what used to be basic skills – a grasp of the law and fast shorthand.”
He went on to identify the excellent work done by dedicated agency reporters, but it’s clear that their work is primarily used for news coverage, not for the sort of opinion piece which we see all too often, and which would usually benefit from a bit of thorough fact-checking. Of course, there is always the risk that fact-checking might spoil what might otherwise look like a good “story”.