Government has to think again on getting court proceedings to the public

Psst. Are you a journalist? Wanna work as a Government agent? Help beat terrorism? Before you decide which way you like your martinis and where to park the Aston Martin, it’s not that kind of help.

The Government would like the public to have a greater understanding of the nature of the terrorist threat facing us and, being too mean to pay for ads, they would like journalists to do the work for them.

What’s stopping journalists from alerting us all to the dangers in our midst? According to the Attorney General, and Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism chief, it’s contempt of court. But contempt of court is not the real obstacle – the real obstacle is resources.

Reporting of trials is highly labour-intensive. With newsrooms under pressure, the ability of journalism to act as free transcription service for the law courts and public watchdog is no longer viable. Even agencies are no longer finding it profitable to fill the gap.

It isn’t just terrorism. A senior PR told me recently about two clients’ experiences with the courts. In one case, a client asked for advice ahead of an embarrassing appearance at magistrates court. Except the hearing went uncovered, so the advice wasn’t needed. Another client wanted a court decision publicised. A journalist had to be hired to report it and make the copy available to agencies.

Recording the small failings or successes of celebrities may seem trivial next to terrorism, but to ensure that justice remains public, the public needs information. The public can make up its own mind as to what interpretation is placed on the material, be it about soap stars or suicide bombers.

Besides, in the case of terrorism there is an important difference. Criminal trials are the only real opportunity we have to evaluate and scrutinise the operations of the security services. There is no Independent Police Complaints Commission to call them to account.

Journalism’s role in informing the public is long-debated, but there’s no question that when it’s made available the public can now seek out information for themselves quickly and easily.

If the Government wants better public understanding of terrorism (and all criminal proceedings), it needs to spend money making court transcripts and court documents available online. In fact, the new Ministry of Justice could go further and make video of proceedings available.

Adrian Monck is head of of journalism and publishing City University, London

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