A newspaper’s application to use Twitter for “live coverage” of the verdicts and possible sentences in the case of two men charged with helping gunman Raoul Moat was rejected by a senior judge.
Justice McCombe dealt with the application at Newcastle Crown Court on 10 March, while the jury was considering its verdicts in the trial of Karl Ness and Qhuran Awan.
Both had denied a string of serious charges relating to Moat’s rampage in which he killed one man and blinded a police officer.
They were eventually convicted, and jailed for life on 15 March, with Ness ordered to serve a minimum of 40 years in prison and Awan a minimum of 20.
The judge refused the application because he believed that the interests of justice would be best served by the production of fair and balanced reports.
It was also important that any sentences should be reported properly.
Mr Justice McCombe said the application was from ncjMedia Ltd, publisher of the Newcastle-based Evening Chronicle and other newspapers, and sought permission to conduct “live coverage from the verdict and any possible sentence”.
It was accompanied by a copy of the interim guidance on the use in courts of live, text-based silent communications which was issued recently by the Lord Chief Justice, and he had also looked at the consultation on the issue which was currently being consulted, he said.
The interim guidance said a judge faced by such an application should be satisfied that the use of such types of communication would not pose a danger of interfering with the proper administration of justice in the case.
Justice McCombe said: “The traditional view has been that the use of such communications should not be permitted.”
The questions arising in the current consultation were wide-ranging and needed careful consideration, and he believed that it would be unfortunate to anticipate its outcome by changing the usual practice in this case.
He went on: “In essence, I think that the administration of justice would be best served by the production outside court of fair and balanced reports of the proceedings after the event, without the pressure of a perceived need for ‘immediacy’.
“Pressure for speed has a tendency to produce unfortunate results.”
It was also not right to grant the application, made on short notice at a very late stage in the trial by only one media organisation.
The judge said: “Ideally, for future trials conducted by me, before the results of the Lord Chief Justice’s consultation is known, I would welcome an early consideration of these issues between the court and the press to consider exactly what might be best in the individual case.”
Justice McCombe went on: “In general terms, and as present advised, I think that there would be much to commend the grant of permission to report verdicts in an instantaneous manner, unobtrusively from the court room.
“Unfortunately, to the prejudice of the orderly transaction of court proceedings, a tendency has arisen among press representatives to rush headlong from the court immediately when verdicts are announced, without regard to the fact that the court is still in session and further matters have still to be dealt with by the court after pronouncement of the verdicts.
“If restraint cannot be exercised in such circumstances, then perhaps instantaneous communication has to be accepted as the only solution.
“Sentence, however, is another matter.”
Justice McCombe said that in high-profile cases he prepared written judgments explaining the reasons for sentences, which he made available to the press and the Judicial Communications Office – and he intended to do that in this case, if the defendants were convicted.
“Regrettably, it has been my experience in some cases that the quest for ‘immediacy’ of reporting has prevented the production of fair and accurate reports of such decisions,” he went on.
“The tendency is sometimes to report the result only and the reaction to it from immediately interested parties, such as the family of a victim or of the accused, while neglecting to report at all the reasoning process by which the judge has arrived at the sentence actually passed.
“This is prejudicial to the proper administration of justice because the public then read only the brief report of the type that I have described, without being informed at all about the judge’s reasons, let alone about the parameters of legislation, statutory guidance and previous decisions of the Court of Appeal by which the judge was bound.”
It was clear from reports of comments about sentences in murder cases that the public was not aware of the statutory criteria by which courts were bound, which were “not always straightforward in their application”.
“Indeed, even in reputable news reports, minimum custodial terms passed as an adjunct of life sentences had been reported in the past as if they were not minimum terms at all but determinate sentences, indicating precisely the period which the convicted person is required to serve in custody before release,” Justice McCombe said.
In attempted murder and robbery cases, judges were bound by statutory guidance published by the Sentencing Guidelines Council, and they also had to consider decisions by the Court of Appeal.
Reports compiled on the steps of a court building sometimes failed to take these matters into account, which was why he tried to provide fully reasoned decisions to help journalists in reporting cases.
“The proper administration of justice in an individual case, and in general, is not served, in my view, by news reports that engage only with the result of the sentencing hearing and not with the reasons for the passing of the sentence, while still reporting instantaneous reactions of others involved to a greater or lesser degree in the proceedings,” Justice McCombe said.
“It is on such reports that the public at large form their views on a sentence and on the sentencing process as a whole, without any real understanding of the attempted rigorous application by the court to the individual case of the relevant Acts of Parliament (passed on behalf of us all by the legislature), the statutory guidance and the previously decided cases.
“In my judgment the problems outlined above can only be exacerbated by instantaneous communication from a court room while a sentencing hearing is still proceedings.
“It cannot, I think, be in the interests of defendants, victims and their respective families, awaiting a result that will greatly affect their lives, that news reports are filtering out before a concluded decision on the case has been reached.
“If such reporting is not in the interests of these persons affected by the result, I do not consider that it is in the interests of the proper administration of justice or of the public either.”
The judge said he looked forward to the consultation process on this issue, and only wished that it was wider-ranging in promoting a full discussion of he issues affecting “fair and accurate” reporting of legal proceedings generally, adding: “The problems are not confined by any means to live, text-based communications”.