The reporting of complex family court judgments.
We are grateful for this guest post from Sanchia Berg, a reporter for Radio 4’s Today programme. She covers major news stories and also delivers original journalism- notably in fields of Education, Immigration, History and Social Affairs. She also writes and presents these stories across BBC media: radio, television, online and presents current affairs and documentaries too, on radio and TV.
The Transparency Project have been impressed by how she manages to condense often complicated family cases into accessible short pieces for a wider readership, without sacrificing accuracy along the way. So we asked her – how do you do this?
How do you find out about the cases?
I find cases/judgments:
- through helpful tweeters like John Bolch
- through checking Bailii directly
- more rarely through parties involved
How do you decide what you will report about?
Deciding what is newsworthy is more difficult to explain. I propose stories to Editors – on Today, on BBC News Online, sometimes on TVNews as well, and they either commission or turn them down. I have a pretty high “strike” rate.
I look for cases that are striking, unusual, significant, or where the judge has made particularly strong comments. Sometimes a case that might seem fairly routine to lawyers – for example the elderly dementia patient wrongly removed from her home by Milton Keynes council – can get a lot of attention because of the circumstances – the story . In that case, the woman’s son went on a short errand… and returned to discover social workers had taken his mother. The local authority wouldn’t at first say where they’d placed her.
I cover other topics too; I’m sure I miss some interesting./important judgments. I’m grateful for tip offs about interesting judgments expected.
How do you summarise the issues to make them accessible?
I ask myself -“What’s the story?” “what’s the top line?”
It’s a good starting point because it makes you check whether you’ve properly understood the judgment.
Almost always it’s the court decision – for instance, when Mr Justice Holman ruled a six year old boy whose father killed his mother should live with his paternal family. That was a very simple story, powerful case, interesting.
Occasionally, it might be an unusually strong comment or criticism by the judge – as when the High Court criticised Kent Country Council.
That then shapes the rest of the piece. I’ll tell the story -who, what when, where, why – taking the information directly from the judgment, reflecting the arguments and being very careful about any identifying detail. Where an individual, or an authority, is criticised, I’ll contact them to see if they have any comment about the decision.
Broadcast news pieces are very short. Where a case is long running – like the Latvian child CB -it’s impossible to reflect the years of hearings and argument in the radio bulletin piece. You’re left with the core question -should this child be adopted ?- and you have to briefly set out why the court decided that, why the mother objects, and whether the Court of Appeal upheld the decision.
In the BBC News Online piece on that case I could give more detail, looking at the issue before the court of appeal : should the case should be moved to Latvia? I endeavour to reflect the arguments fairly , but they are inevitably very condensed. Once or twice I’ve come across interesting judgments that I haven’t reported – they’re just too complex.