In this essay I will be discussing the major restrictions thatare placed on journalists when reporting from a court of law in the UnitedKingdom. I will discuss why these restrictions are in place and the ethicalchallenges journalists face.Some restrictions are in place to stop bias informationbeing published that could manipulate jurors to think that a defendant might beguilty. General restrictions apply automatically in all courts, these restrictionscan be found under the Contempt of Court Act which was updated in 1981. The actwas created to clarify to journalists what is and is not allowed in court. Courtscan lift or place restrictions on journalists at any times.
Journalist are expected to prepare before dealing with acourt case in the UK. They must seek legal advice before publishing anybackground information they have researched and written about while a case isgoing on. They should contact the relevant administrative team for the courtwhere the case will be. For higher profile cases journalists are advised tocheck with the Judicial Communications Office. From doing so a journalist willobtain relevant information and will also be made aware of specific restrictionsthat judges may have made. Journalists need to keep in touch with courts afterinitial trials too as any court orders that judges have put in place canrestrict what can be reported.Within the United Kingdom there are many differences betweenEnglish and Welsh courts compared to Scottish courts.
First, we must discussthe different types of court, there are crown courts, coroner’s courts, magistrate courts and familycourts and they all deal with different types of cases, resulting in each havingdifferent restrictions.As crown courts deal with serious crimes, for example rape,there will often be victims of sexual offences involved in the cases held atthat type of court. These victims are entitled to their identities being keptprivate whether someone gets prosecuted, convicted or not, even if theallegation is withdrawn. They are also given the option of new identities whichpresents a restriction on journalists reporting on such cases as this limitsthe amount of detail they can provide to the public in their work. The reasonfor this restriction is because “the person in respect of whom the order wouldbe made has reasonable grounds to fear intimidation or harm if they wereidentified.” (The Crown ProsecutionService, 2017)In England and Wales, minors, whether the child or teenagerbe a defendant, victim or witness, are also entitled to their identity beingkept anonymous, providing another restriction for journalists reporting on acase involving under 18-year-olds.
However, this is different in Scotland as ayoung people suspected of criminal behaviour are treated as adult from the ageof 16 onward, the only exception to this is in a Children’s Hearing. A child’sidentity is often kept private because of a variety of reasons, for example inthe eyes of the law, they are not adults and so cannot make their own decisionsas to whether they want their identity shared. Journalists are restricted to what they can report on in magistratecourts, overall, they are limited to publishing the name of the court, thejudges in charge of the case, a summary of the charges, the names, addresses,ages and occupations of the defendants along with witnesses and the lawyersinvolved and arrangements as to bail.
In family courts, restrictions on journalists are dependenton each particular case. As it is is important that a journalist must notpublish information about a child or children, including names, ages, addressesand the schools they attend and any other information that could make themeasily identified by the public. This also includes the information of adultsin the case that are connected to the child or children, as it could also leadto the children being identified.
There is also the risk of “jigsaw” identification. Thisrefers to the public piecing together other published information thus workingout who the unnamed people are in the case. (Collins Dictionary, 2013)In terms of television, photos andvideos need to be checked before used on TV. Lawyers are often a good source toconsult if a journalist is in doubt about what to publish. Photos used must notcontain children or connections of children involved in cases, they also mustnot have any pics of victims of sexual offences. No photographs can be releasedthat feature jurors entering or leaving court, even if the photo was taken notwith the intention of having a juror in it and just an accident.
Within the Contempt of Court Act is the strict liability rulewhich involves any writing or speech that is set to be published to the public.The rule is specifically for publications which make a high risk on the courseof justice in the proceedings that are being reported on to be seriouslyimpeded or prejudiced. Although, if a journalist had reported a fair andaccurate account of legal proceedings held in public than the journalist willnot be held guilty of contempt of court under the strict liability rule.It is also stated in the Contempt of Court Act 1981 that any typeof recording device, whether it be a tape recorder, or a mobile device or anysound recording equipment without permission from the court is an act ofcontempt, also any publishing of the recordings are also classed as an act ofcontempt.In terms of television, photos and videos need to be checked beforeused on TV. Lawyers are often a good source to consult if a journalist is indoubt about what to publish. Photos used must not contain children orconnections of children involved in cases, they also must not have any pics ofvictims of sexual offences. No photographs can be released that feature jurorsentering or leaving court, even if the photo was taken not with the intentionof having a juror in it and just an accident.
The hardest part of not breaking these restrictions forjournalists is the ethical element of reporting. The law always provides whatthe society sees as the outer limits of acceptable behaviour. Codes of ethicsare within these boundaries. The main difference between law and ethics is thatlaw means what society believe we must do and ethics is what the profession andsociety believe we should do.Journalists always have to debate what is in public interest when itcomes to reporting. What is of public interest and what is in the publicsinterest are two different things. For journalists to report ethically theyhave to be accurate and fair.
The public are entitled to as much information aspossible to judge for themselves what they make of a story and whether theytrust the sources used to report a story too. When applying this to a courtstory it can be ethically hard for a journalist to follow, as on one side theyfeel they owe the public the whole story and want to share all the details theycan, such as names and ages of victims for example. However, on the other handthey must not break the law and the contempt of court act. So, they have tojudge whether, say, revealing a victim’s name is information that the publicneed and whether this outweighs the cost of harm it could cause to the victim. Thisalso applies to criminals too.
A good example of this is with the Baby P case. The Baby P casewas a famous case about the abuse a child suffered over the course of over ayear until his unfortunate death. The story was reported on for years as newinformation was released but originally Baby Peter’s abusers were keptanonymous which the public thought was outrageous.
A report by Caroline Gammell(2009) describes how the public felt: “The legal restrictions concealing theirnames caused anger and provoked criticism on the internet from those who feltthey did not deserve the protection of anonymity.” However, anonymity can becomplicated as the law was in place to protect Baby Peter’s siblings, notnecessarily to protect the offenders. In the end though judge Justice Coleridgeruled that Connelly and Barker should be named for their crimes “soonerrather than later.” Gammell reported that the judge said: “it was a question ofbalancing the public’s right to know who the perpetrators were and theprotection of any minors who may be linked to the case.”Another real-life example of a case where a victim’s name wasrevealed is in 2005 on May 16th. Two children went missing: eight-year-oldShasta Groene and her nine-year-old brother Dylan Groene. Eventually they werefound thanks to their names and descriptions being publicised.
It also was revealedthat the two siblings had been sexually abused. Despite children and sexuallyabused victims’ names usually being kept anonymous to the media, as Dylan andShasta’s names had been revealed to help find them, the news continued toidentify them. In the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics (2014),it says to “seek the truth and report it”, however it also says, “use heightenedsensitivity when dealing with juvenile, victims of sex crimes.” Much like therules in the Contempt of Court Act, this is where a journalist must judge forthemselves whether the public interest is higher than the victim or offendersinterest and right.
In conclusion, when it comes to journalists reporting on courtcases there are many restrictions automatically in place, there are alsorestrictions applied to specific cases by judges. All restrictions are in placefor good reason and in the interest of those involved in the case, so it is fora journalist to make ethical decisions whilst also abiding the law.