Going into work yesterday was a little like being in school out of term. The Four Courts are buzzing any time they are in session and the quietness is particularly roaring out of hours. I’ve been to Saturday sittings before as well as Vacation Sittings (held during the two month summer recess) and always enjoy being in the building when the throng is noticeably absent.
Yesterday, there to wait for the jury in the Manuela Riedo trial to come to their verdict, it was one thing after another. A couple of things happened that really highlighted something that has irritated me for years…the attitude to the media here in Ireland.
Now I know there are places on earth where the authorities are a damn sight worse than here in Dublin, places where journalists work in danger of their life. I’m not suggesting I work in a repressive regime just that things aren’t as easy as they should be.
The main thing that happened yesterday that underlines my point was not particularly unexpected. In fact it happens on quite a regular basis if you work out of the courts. It shouldn’t…but it does.
We had taken our seats for the jury to resume their deliberations. As we had for the duration of the trial we all piled into the two benches where the accused sits. This is normal. There are no such things as press benches in the main courts of the Four Courts. It’s not like the English courts where a press bench is standard. We have to find space wherever we can but as press we’re allowed a much freeer reign than the public who have two allotted areas to watch justice being done from.
Usually the media sit either in the two benches behind the barristers or next to the accused. We have to hear what’s being said and since the acoustics in the 200 year old building leave something to be desired sitting as close to the judge as possible is preferable. If there are a lot of garda witnesses or the deceased in a murder trial had a large family the benches behind the barristers aren’t free. If the case is full of salacious detail the public benches fill up quickly as well. That leaves the seat beside the accused facing the jury.
Now to be honest this is probably the pick of the bunch anyway. The accused has to be able to hear what’ s being said about him so you can hear everything that’s said. Similarly you have a good vantage point to see reactions and the kind of details you need if you’re writing colour. There’s also a handy ledge that’s just right for a laptop or a computer.
It sounds, if you haven’t seen the courts, as if this means that we’re sitting on top of the accused. It’s not quite like that, these benches were designed to hold bunches of accused so they could potentially hold up to 20 people, if everyone squished a bit. These days, to give the accused a bit of space there wouldn’t be more than 10 of us sitting there. But sit there we do. The judge doesn’t complain, the defence don’t complain, the accused doesn’t complain. They all realise we’re just there to do our job.
That’s the way it usually is. But not yesterday. Yesterday we’d piled in as usual, leaving a large gap between us and Gerald Barry (as suggested by the regular prison guards since he had been known to lunge). The judge came in and sent the jury out again and we all settled down to wait.
Barry had been led back to his cell. He was in custody throughout the trial – he’s not a very nice man. We settled back with laptops, coffee and papers to wait it out. The regular prison officers weren’t in yesterday. It being a weekend. The guys who were in looked at us with contempt. We were cluttering up their nice courtroom with our junk.
One of them came over.
“Guys, seriously, the accused man deserves a fair trial. Youse shouldn’t be sitting there crowding him. You’re right across from the jury.”
“Yes, we know. We’ve been sitting here all week. We always sit here.”
“You shouldn’t be sitting there. It’s not right.”
And on it went for several minutes gathering more and more angry journos to argue the toss. Eventually we were left as we were, now rather irritated. We had been sitting there all week and we most definitely had not been crowding the accused. We’d been told not to by the weekday prison officers. For our own safety.
It might have been a storm in a teacup but it really isn’t an isolated occurrence. Earlier in the week we had been excluded for court while the defence looked for a day’s recess. Not only were the jury present while this request was granted, the press are allowed to sit through legal arguement (though we usually choose not to since we can’t write anything when the jury’s not in place).
Over the past two years while I’ve been down in the courts I’ve encountered this kind of attitude more than once. Prison officers who’ve tried to exclude me from rape cases (that happens quite a bit and has sometimes required the judge’s intervention), the whole court personnel moving into the judges chambers to hear evidence and having the door shut in my face. Gardai who’ve confiscated computers because they could secretly broadcast proceedings.
You really have to know what you are and what you are entitled to if you work that beat here in Ireland. As happened yesterday the familiarity of the challenge can result in quite a bolshie response but for god’s sake, we shouldn’t have to fight for our right to cover public court proceedings (and in the case of “in camera” cases like rape, we stand for the public who aren’t allowed in out of deference to the sensitivity of the evidence.
Justice is supposed to be done in public and that means that the general public should be able to read it when it comes wrapping their fish and chips, or listen to it or watch it. It’s a pretty basic right and it’s mixed up in a person’s right to a fair trial. It’s important.
Which makes it so irritating when the powers that be don’t seem to understand this. There is a definite attitude out there that the media are vermin who should be at the very least discouraged, at worst banned entirely.
Last year a debate took place, I think, in the Sugar Club in Dublin. It was organised by one of the legal organisations and the motion was whether or not the media were out of control. I don’t have the full details because the media were not invited. Not one of the journalists who work in the Four Courts on a daily basis was invited and the owners of the two new agencies are there on a permanent basis were not even informed. Only one poster went up and that was on the day of the debate itself.
We heard about it over the next few days though. Apparently the event was mainly attended by newly qualified barristers who did not think much of the media as a whole. The one account that appeared in the press (which I’ve been unable to locate but will post if I ever do) described a baying mob calling for the media’s blood in the wake of the sensationalist coverage of trials like Joe O’Reilly and Brian Kearney.
OK the coverage has got somewhat lurid on some occasions but that’s the nature of the press. When that has happened editors have been called in and knuckles have been rapped by the judge. But that’s obviously not enough for some people.
I get on well with a lot of barristers and court staff who I’ve got to know over the past couple of years. We all understand that we each have a role to play and it’s easier to do that if everyone plays nicely together. Apart from anything else, when you’ve waited hours upon hours for juries to come back the barriers tend to come down.
But some of the younger barristers treat us with suspicion and some of the Courts Service staff treat us like cockroaches. Getting some information or facilities can be like getting blood out of a stone. Almost any journalist I know who has had occasion to deal with different justice systems has stories about how wonderful it is to deal with press offices anywhere else. When I was researching Devil I couldn’t believe how easy it was to get court documents in the U.S. Here we’re dependent on the whims of the individual teams.
It’s easy to feel as if we are only allowed in on sufferance. The absence of press benches wasn’t an oversight it was simply because someone felt then, as now, that the media didn’t have a place in the courts.
And just to make it very clear. I’m not hitting out at any of the wonderful staff who help get my job done on a daily basis. This is just something that exists underlying things. An attitude that seems to be fairly endemic in certain quarters. This is a rant about that perception. If it’s allowed to spread it could be very damaging not only to the Irish media but also to Irish justice. Justice needs to be done in public, as does politics but that’s another matter entirely. We forget that at our peril.