Tweeting from court? 140 characters which will spell trouble for journalists

Liverpool Echo

Liverpool ECHO's late final on the night Rhys Jones's killer was convicted

The trial of those involved in the murder of Rhys Jones, the 11-year-old boy shot dead as he walked home from football practice in Liverpool understandably gripped the city.

As media scrums at court go, it was up there with some of the biggest court cases of recent memory. TV reporters worked in relay between the court which housed the press and their respective satellite trucks, while dozens of print reporters covered the case on a daily basis.

The guilty verdict against Sean Mercer was reported within seconds of the final verdict being delivered. Thousands of people had followed the case via a liveblog on the Liverpool ECHO website. They read the verdict on the ECHO’s liveblog roughly a minute and a half before it began running on Sky News and the BBC News Channel.

The coverage the ECHO was able to provide via the liveblog was unrivalled. Of course, the print editions of the ECHO – including the special late final on the day of the verdict – also provided the best coverage possible for those wanting a daily digest of what had happened, but for the sizeable audience which wanted to follow the case live, or dip in several times a day, the live blog was essential viewing.

Crime reporter Ben Rossington was even able to push for the release of key bits of evidence once they had been shown to the jury – including audio, stills and video clips.

The only negative comment the liveblog drew from users was that they didn’t like the fact they couldn’t comment on events as they went on. Legally, that just wasn’t something which could be allowed by the Echo – but in an age where people know they can go and talk about anything they want on forums, it was sometimes hard to make that point.

The reason I refer to this tonight isn’t because I fancied bringing up, for the sake of it,  but because of the interest in ‘live’ court reporting prompted by a judge’s decision to allow people to tweet from one of the Julian Assange extradition appeal hearings.

It prompted the question: When will we be allowed to Tweet from every court? I suspect the answer is still: Not for a long time.

There is already a groundswell of opinion – largely on Twitter – supporting the notion that we be able to tweet from every court case. I’d certainly support the ability to report live from court cases, but I’m not sure Twitter is the right way to do it.

Any news editor who is faced with cutting back a court case from 400 words to just a few pars does so with a sense of dread. Trying to do that constantly within 140 characters while at the same time listening to the next bit of evidence or legal proceedure sounds like a recipe for disaster – or at the very least, for a contempt of court charge.

One of the arguments being put forward in favour of tweeting from court is that the same is already being done from council meetings – but paraphrasing the quotes of councillors is a lot less risky than condensing passages of court reporting into 140 characters, especially if you try to engage with those who are responding to you on Twitter.

Put it another way: Would you, as a news editor, be happy with your reporter tweeting from court?

That’s not to say we shouldn’t push for more open reporting of court – although I’m not sure what difference it would make to the level of court coverage we currently see. Many hyperlocal and community publishers opt not to cover court because of the perceived pitfalls involved. Rather like parliament, the courts process doesn’t appear to have changed much over time and as such is still alien to many. Getting something wrong has serious consequences, and is very easy to do because the process is so, well, old fashioned.

There have been other liveblogs of court cases since the Rhys Jones trial. One that springs to mind is when Steven Gerrard was accused of being involved in an assault at a bar in Southport, something he was subsequently cleared of. A liveblog of the magistrates hearing relied on tweets from reporters – but there was little more to report there than ‘colour’ and the basic facts of what was happening with the case. The evidence was scrutinised at that hearing, and that’s the point at which covering court via tweets would become very hard.

But in the main, live reporting of court cases remains the preserve of the rolling news channels, with reporters updating at regular intervals. Liveblogging the Rhys Jones trial wouldn’t have been possible had there not been a separate court set up for reporters to view the case via video link – and such an arrangement is only set up in the biggest of court cases. The Harold Shipman case at Preston Crown Court is one of the few other examples I can think of.

We do need to fight for the ability to cover court cases live. I’ve been told off by judge for doing Sudoku while sat in the (out of the way) press bench at Preston Crown Court while waiting for the case I’d been sent to cover. His anger wasn’t at a perceived lack of respect for the court process, but because the sound of my pen on the newspaper grid was too noisy. I suspect one instant opposition argument to live reporting will be the potential for distracting noises from reporters typing furiously on laptop keyboards. Touchscreen tablets such as the iPad could get around that.

At the moment, we have one district judge permitting people to tweet from one extoridinary court case. The fact the next hearing for Assange saw a judge ban tweeting tells us about the battle ahead. Presenting an argument which allows people to report live from court without dispensation to do so is more likely to succeed if tweeting isn’t used as the shorthand for that live coverage. Twitlonger could be one solution around for those wishing to use Twitter to report on court – there would be a better discipline in that too I think – but the ability to report live via social media or a Coveritlive liveblog won’t lead to increased coverage of courts in the short-term. As Amanda Coleman points out in her blog, the biggest change in court coverage will come once someone makes it easier to understand the workings of the courts.

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