Law Reporting in a New Media Age

Posted on 26th Apr 2012 in Law Reporting

You can now tweet from inside court, the number of legal bloggers (or blawgers) has risen exponentially and most newspapers publish considerably more content in their online editions than they print.

Meanwhile, the traditional legal correspondent who was able to provide serious newspaper readers and television viewers with expert commentary has virtually disappeared and the number of dedicated court reporters working full time in the law courts has dwindled to an overworked handful.

As a result of these developments has there been a decline in standards of legal journalism? Or is the public now better informed — or at least in a better position to find out what it wants to know about legal issues and make up its own mind?

These were some of the issues put to the panel of bloggers, tweeters and online correspondents by Joshua Rozenberg, chairman of Halsbury’s Law Exchange, at a panel discussion hosted in the City of London offices of the law firm Eversheds.

Joshua himself, though an enthusiastic user of Twitter, a keen blogger and a prolific online commentator, is a long-established legal affairs correspondent and court reporter of the traditional sort. One of the last, in fact. He has broadcast for the BBC for many years, and wrote for the Daily Telegraph before moving to the Guardian and Standpoint magazine. So he is in a good position to observe the changing face of “law reporting” in the loose, generic sense used in the title of the discussion (rather than the specialised sense used to describe what ICLR does best – about which more anon). He has obviously adapted his training and skills to the new media.

It was unlikely the panel were going to say that what they did was either a waste of time or represented a decline in standards of legal journalism. Instead, they were each given an opportunity to say why they thought it was a positive development. The whole event (including my own contribution from the floor) was filmed and is to be uploaded onto YouTube, so you can see and hear it all at leisure. What follows is only a summary.

David Allen Green, a practising solicitor who writes the Jack of Kent blog, said he had begun blogging because he realised people didn’t understand the law of libel and he was able to explain it. He blogs because he enjoys it, not for the money. A blogger doesn’t have to justify his space to an editor, he can take as much as he needs to explain something clearly to his readers; moreover, he can provide links to his sources.

Andrew Sharpe, another solicitor, formerly of Charles Russell, now head of Commercial PSL for LexisNexis, said blogging enabled him to explain a complex piece of law in good plain English. Twitter was useful in particular to pick up trends for stories. Given the decline in traditional court reporting, particularly at the lower court levels, the only way to hear about cases was often through social media, which made up for the lack of coverage.

Adam Wagner, a barrister of One Crown Office Row, writes for the UK Human Rights blog, emphasised that he wasn’t providing legal advice when blogging. It was simply one of the ways in which a barrister could promote himself, like giving talks. Although he had no journalistic training, writing a good article was like writing a well structured legal advice. Everything you said had to be backed up by legal authority.

Katie Dowell, a senior reporter for The Lawyer magazine, a trade paper, said blogging and tweeting enabled writers to keep ahead of rivals in the race to cover important news, and to extend the reach of their readership. There was space for both traditional and new ways of reporting.

Siobhain Butterworth, of The Guardian, said that even as a lawyer she had found she was writing all day in one way or another, and being a journalist was not that different. Lots of stories in the mainstream media were simply amplifying voices in social media, but mainstream media had the resources to cover stories in more depth than bloggers and tweeters.

Joshua observed that when a big story came up, such as the Green Paper on secret courts, it was a traditional newspaper like the Daily Mail which (however improbable its stance) was able to make the running and make the government sit up and take notice. As an expert on human rights law, Adam freely admitted that it had been an eye-opener to see how the pros dealt with the issue.

Joshua widened the discussion to take in television coverage, inviting Simon Bucks of Sky News to comment from the audience. Simon said he fully expected forthcoming legislation to enable the use of cameras in court and that this would aid public understanding of the law.

Joshua then invited me, as a representative of law reporting in the more formal, specialised sense, to explain what ICLR did and stood for. I explained that ICLR had been established in 1865 as a not for profit body to support legal education and the administration of justice by ensuring the reliable publication of important cases. For many years, the only way people could have access to legal decisions was if they had been reported, so ICLR was not just a primary source, it was often the only source.

The major development over the past ten or fifteen years had been the huge increase in the availability of raw law — unreported judgments and unedited legislation — and this combined with new media channels meant that the amount of information and comments was huge. But much of it was concerned, as panellists had admitted, with the race to get there first.

What traditional law reporting was about was producing a filtered, processed, revised and approved version of the law: an expert distillation. Where news reporting of cases might constitute the first draft of history, law reporting was a revised draft, written for posterity. That wasn’t to say ICLR was not enthusiastically engaging with the new media channels to put its message and content across.

I then posed the question, for the practitioners on the panel, as to how happy they would be to go into court, acting for a client, and base their argument on material derived from blogs and tweets rather than traditional published sources. David answered a different question, saying he would be very comfortable using unreported judgments from BAILII in combination with documents such as skeleton arguments (theoretically public documents, though the practicality of obtaining them at short notice is open to doubt). Adam, however, admitted that he would not as a practitioner want to rely on anything less than the most authoritative sources.

Panel Logo

Photo copied (with grateful apologies) from HLE’s own report of the event: L to R, Siobhain, Katy, Adam, Joshua, Andrew and David.

Halsbury’s Law Exchange describes itself as a ThinkTank, “shaping our legal future”. This strikes me as a tad ambitious. On the evidence of this, its first panel discussion since it was founded in September 2010, it may simply be providing a forum, and perhaps some handy publicity for LexisNexis by whom it is sponsored and supported, and many of whose reporters and editors were in the audience and available for comment in the drinks reception which followed.

Coming as it does in the wake of ICLR Encounters, only modesty forbids me to point out that once again ICLR is leading the way in the “thought leadership” stakes.

It’s also worth pointing out that many of the same panellists contributed to a very similar discussion about a year ago, hosted at the Law Society, and blogged by myslef here. The subject is clearly one that isn’t going away. Watch this space.