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How to complain about press coverage of… your court case

Stating the pleading obvious

Stating the pleading obvious

So you’ve been caught doing something you shouldn’t have, been arrested and now it’s time to face the music. But you’re not fussed on the world knowing your business.

Lately, I’ve had a few complaints from people who’ve appeared in court and aren’t happy their case has been written about. So what can you do?

First piece of advice: do not ring up and ask for the story not to be used.

People often call and say “but it’ll break my poor mum/nan/dog/etc’s heart if they read it in the press”. There’s a problem, though: if you ring in and ask for your court case to go unreported, you almost guarantee it’ll appear.

If that sounds petty or contrary, there’s a simple logic which most newsrooms follow.

Most journalists like to be fair and even-handed, so everybody is treated the same. When you ring in and ask for your story to be spiked, imagine the journalist agreed.

Then off you go telling people “I rang them and they agreed not to run it”.

What do I tell the next person who rings in? Especially if they’re a well known figure such as a politician?

To avoid just that sort of accusation, anyone who rings in to demand their case is ignored will find a journalist goes out of their way to publish it – just so they can point out nobody is treated any more favourably than anyone else.

My best advice? Say nothing. Don’t bring your case to the attention of a reporter unnecessarily. Maybe yours will slip between the cracks and go unnoticed.

The Devil’s in the (published) details

Other people question why news outlets include details such as age and address – how dare the media trespass on people’s privacy like that?

But actually, the answer’s pretty simple.

Saying someone’s been in court facing charges when they haven’t is a pretty serious libel.

So in order not to defame every Juan Kelly in Douglas, you specifically identify the one who’s up in court by giving his address and age.

In court, full addresses are given, but reporters rarely (if ever) give a house number. The street name is usually enough to distinguish him from other Juan Kellys, but not always.

In the case of a radio station, most stories are very short because they have to fit into a news bulletin that lasts around three minutes. That means you have to pack in details in a way that positively identifies someone and excludes others who may share a name.

But why report court at all?

There are a few reasons for this, but I’ll pick out what I’d say are the three most important.

First, and most noble, is the idea of having an open, transparent court system that not only delivers justice but is seen to do so.  The phrase “Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done” originated  back in 1923 in a case in the UK.

The media is a vital means of safeguarding that principle. Without court reporting, how would you know the justice system works? Or conversely that the system needed changing?

Second is the fact that criminal courts are open to the public. If anybody can walk in off the street and sit in a court to watch proceedings, why should the media be stopped from doing just that?

The third reason is a little more mercenary.

Court stories garner readers. They’re about everyday tales of the society we live in. Ordinary people with real glimpses of what’s going on out on the streets. And audiences do like them: every newsroom I’ve worked in could tell you they’re always among the most-read stories.

That’s not what really happened – and other irrelevancies

Quite often after people are convicted, they’ll ring the reporter to explain what actually took place and ask them to amend the story.

But in order to have any defence against libelling someone in a court report, all you can write is what was said inside the courtroom while the case was being heard. And if there’s a jury involved you also have to make sure your story can’t possibly prejudice their thinking.

So anything said outside the court is a no-go. No matter what’s said inside the court, that’s what’s reported. If you’re not happy it makes you or your company look bad, you have an advocate in court to argue the toss – it’s too late to complain afterwards.

If they don’t say it in court, I can’t say it outside. I’m not there to judge the truth of a story, that’s the job of the judiciary. My job is to write about the case in a concise, fair way.

Legal frets

From all this, you might be imagining you can’t complain at all about a court story.

Actually, ringing in and pointing out a factual error is the easiest way to make sure it’ll be corrected. Misspelt or mistyped names, an age worked out wrongly from a date of birth or a misheard street name are all mistakes a reporter will try to avoid, but nobody’s perfect.

From time to time, one slips through the net – and we make every effort to sort that out as quickly as possible. That probably means checking with the court first to make sure everything’s as you’ve said – remember you’re just a voice on the phone or a name on an email.

There’s also the need for the report to be accurate in the round – so if your first appearance is reported, your verdict should too. That’s sometimes easier said than done if understaffed newsrooms miss the court appearance which cleared you of all charges.

But a call to the newsroom will sort that out. I dealt with a very understanding man a few weeks ago who’d been found not guilty months after a story appeared about him being in court. We checked with the court and then agreed to remove the story.

The Columbo moment

Just one more thing…

If you call a newsroom and rant and rave about your conviction story, all bets are off. Even if they’ve made an error, screaming at an outlet is going to get you almost nowhere.

To begin with, if a reporter thinks there’s the possibility of a legal case they clam up. If they think you’re planning to sue, they can’t say much because it might invalidate the legal insurance.

And if you’re determined to swear and shout about the error, you’ll be offered a correction with equal prominence. Sounds fair enough, but do you really want “Juan Kelly, convicted of this awful crime, is aged 29 not 39 as stated”?

If you didn’t want a story first time around, do you really want to give a journalist a second bite at the cherry?

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