Reports that legal history had been made by a judge allowing the use of Twitter in open court for an extradition hearing in London sparked a few earth-shattering predictions.
Was this the end of court reporting as we know it? Could this be ‘possibly the final nail in the coffin of shorthand’? Will court hearings soon be televised? Should everyone be allowed to digitally record proceedings?
The ensuing debate conjured up pin-sharp HD images of a future where legal cases are reported as they happen by a series of tweets, freely available to all at no cost whatsoever.
Compare this to the faded daguerrotype of decrepit court reporters shuffling out of court at the end of proceedings with their notebooks of laboriously written shorthand which has to be transcribed back to English in their heads and then inputted into a computer before being edited, amended, polished and printed on newspapers perused by the few at a price.
But let’s not get carried away. For a start, the Julian Assange extradition case is relatively unique. The outcome of the hearing was of interest to a vast international audience and concerned a man who has become the figurehead for a crusade on behalf of openness in government. Wikileaks, the organisation he founded, has been a popular subject on Twitter for months.
As Adam Wagner has said on the UK Human Rights Blog, the power of Twitter ‘lies in its system of replies, followers, categories and retweets, whereby people can research and broadcast information in an extremely specific and targeted way to to the world at large.’
Tweets of 140 characters are not particularly suited to court reporting other than by transmitting the basic result of a case. Reporters have been tweeting (and texting) in this way for a long time now, even if it usually has to be done away from the eyes of suspicious court staff. So it is not a new development, it is just that the Times reporter Alexi Mostrous felt it necessary to ask the judge for permission and then publicised the granting of permission. (There are two ways of confronting obstructive rules – ask for permission first or flout and argue later).
While courts have become more lenient about allowing laptops to be used openly (nobody seems to mind an ipad being flipped open), mobile phones are seen as insidious devices designed to break the rules. Journalists are told to turn them off and reprimanded if caught ‘playing’ with them during a case.
No doubt this rule developed because of the frequency that ridiculous ringtones went off every five minutes, but they can also interfere with TV and speaker equipment. And it may sound stupid, but people have tried to take pictures of defendants in the court, no doubt so they can later hang them on their bedroom walls.
And perhaps the idea that the journalist is having fun texting his friends and lovers while everybody else has to concentrate also plays a part.
There are other reasons why this type of hearing was more suited to Twitter. As an extradition case held before a district judge it could be commented upon by whoever cares to share their opinion, whether instantly via twitter or at leisure on their blog.
This does not apply to jury trials where comment is outlawed and prejucidial information not heard by the jury is banned by the Contempt of Court Act. Why? Because it is the received opinion that giving juries every little piece of information would be like handing them a stick of dynamite.
In the world of court, not everything is relevant to the case. How this works in practice has been developed over the centuries. It is the judge’s task to decide what the jury should be told (and in this way he works a bit like an old-style newspaper).
Is it relevant that a rape victim’s sexual history should be laid out in open court? What about a defendant’s list of previous convictions? How about the suspicions and speculations of witnesses and police officers based on rumour and the ‘word on the street’? What exactly counts as ‘evidence’?
There are countless examples of verdicts being overturned because a juror was told how to vote by her husband, or did research on the internet or visited the murder scene on their own or generally tried to take up their deerstalker and pipe and investigate the case themselves.
Counter to this establishment fear of being held to ransom by ill-educated and easily-swayed juries runs the growing feeling that there should be more trust in the public. Are they not capable of deciding what is relevant and what is not? This is to a certain extent how the system works in the US, although they have a complicated jury selection process which strikes most British observers as deeply strange. Here in the UK we select at random, discriminating neither by age, race, religion or intelligence.
So it’s about trust. And if open tweeting from court is going to increase interest and trust in the workings of our justice system then that can only be a good thing. Likewise cameras in court – they will neither bring down the system or replace journalists, they will hopefully augment both.
All this doesn’t mean that court reporting is dead. It just means that like everything else it is being improved and adapted as time goes by. There will always be a market for an entertaining report of court proceedings. It isn’t always just about the result.
Equally it doesn’t mean that shorthand is dead, despite its reputation for being antiquated and unnecessary now that lovely shiny digital recorders are available. Recorders are fine for those who aren’t working to a tight deadline but they are absolutely useless for those occasions when people want accurate and readable copy of more than 140 characters within 20 minutes.
Paradoxically this is a skill that has been on the decline in recent years as newspapers cut back and bring their deadlines forward to save money.
But when people have turned away from printed newspapers talking about yesterday’s news and started favouring the internet with its ever-shifting front pages, surely shorthand is more important than ever? It is a skill that places the competent reporter with an advantage over their rivals at a time when it appears that everyone wants to be a journalist.
In a world where the norm is for news to be provided for free, quality will be king.