One of the first things you’re taught as a journalist in terms of court reporting is how to avoid landing yourself in contempt of court. There’s a very good reason for this. There are limited workplaces where putting a foot wrong can land you in a cell but it can be a hazard of the job if you work in the courts.
The thing with contempt of court is that it’s perilously easy to land yourself in it, whoever you are. At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious contempt of court could be broadly described as anything that breaks the rules of the court. It could be a witness contacting a juror directly or, as happened in a recent case in the UK a juror contacting the accused. For a journalist it could be printing something prejudicial to the defence during a trial or printing matters said in the absence of the jury, even turning on a recording device in court. Some of these things are easy to avoid if you know the job – though mistakes do happen – but other forms of contempt are harder to duck.
There are many reasons not to comply with a court order. It could be journalists refusing to reveal their sources, as happened to Colm Keena of the Irish Times some years ago or a case like that of Offaly pensioner Teresa Treacy who was jailed for contempt for not allowing the ESB onto her land to cut down her trees.
But not all contempt is as easy to spot. There’s a type of contempt known as “scandalising the court”. This is the rule that, broadly speaking, means that a judge can throw anyone in his court into a cell for not showing sufficient respect. That might call to mind Soviet dictatorships or the Wild West but thems the rules. I’ve heard gardai threatened with contempt for gum chewing and an accused threatened for not sitting up straight. Last week in Bray District Court a barrister ended up on the wrong side of a contempt charge for not sitting down when he was told. Apparently the judge in that case, Judge Murrough Connellan has a bit of a name for running a strict courtroom. Back in 2006 he jailed a punk father for wearing a Sex Pistols t-shirt in court.
Judgements like the Bray one and Teresa Treacy’s incarceration might raise considerable comment but it’s the nature of things. The judge is in charge of the courtroom and some wield that authority heavier than others. There aren’t many judges now that would throw contempt at someone who’d arrived in court in jeans, or the wrong t-shirt for that matter, but it’s usually a good idea to dress neatly – just in case.
In a totally unrelated matter, I’ve been writing elsewhere this week. The National Library of Ireland asked me to write a post on my specialist subject ahead of their Thrillers and Chillers season of Library Late talks. I’ve been spending a lot of time there recently, researching far more lawless times than these so I wrote a post on our fascination with murder and how some things never change – with examples from the 1850s.
It’s been almost three years since I started this blog. I started it to help publicise my first book The Devil in the Red Dress, which was due to be come out that November. The idea was to write about the process of being published for the first time as well as to talk about the case that Devil centred on and others that I covered day to day in the courts.
Since then I’ve written two other books and covered many other cases. All the while I’ve written about what I was up to on here. For the past few months though I haven’t been posting much. It’s been a long time since I’ve written a daily post and even longer since I followed an unfolding story over successive posts as I used to with the trials I covered. I’ve felt increasingly tongue tied when I went to post and have recently been considering stopping the blog altogether.
But this isn’t goodbye – just a bit of a change in gears.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking this year. Back in May my agent retired and I was faced with the prospect of having to sell myself from scratch again. I may have a better CV these days but any new agent is going to have to believe in me and in my ability to have a long and hopefully lucrative career. But selling yourself when you’re having doubts about the product yourself isn’t the easiest thing in the world.
I fell into court reporting almost by accident but once I started I grew to love it. I loved the almost academic ritual of the courts and the drama of each individual trial. I’ve written many times here about the stories that can be found in the most brutal cases. The administration of justice fascinates me as a writer – it’s pure human conflict – the raw material of stories since the dawn of time. As long as I could sit quietly in the bench behind the barristers with my notebook and my pens cataloguing what went on before me I was never short of something to write and some of the stories that unfolded in those panelled courtrooms played out as dramatically as any fiction I could dream up at my desk.
I had thought that I had found my niche, somewhere I was happy to work for years to come but there’s the rub…for the past year or so it’s dawned on me that perhaps it wasn’t where I wanted to serve out the rest of my time. It’s an odd thing working as a reporter in an Irish court. I firmly believe that it’s vital that journalists cover the courts. Justice must be done in public and the press bring justice out of the courts and onto the breakfast table where it can be openly discussed by all. That’s not always the way it feels though. The press are viewed as irritants at best, at worst an infestation that in an ideal world would be eradicated just like rats or cockroaches. It’s an attitude you find amongst the legal professions, the gardai and the public. I’m not saying it’s held by everyone but it’s widespread enough to get a bit wearing on a daily basis. There’s a perception that the only reason the courts are covered is to titillate the baser instincts of the masses, a freak show that makes a circus out of the august institution of the Law…and having seen some of the scrums after particularly high profile trials I can see how that perception could have come about.
As a freelancer I’m limited in the kind of trial I can cover. I can’t afford to sit in court for weeks on end when it’s a story I can’t sell. Against the backdrop of the smoking embers of the Irish economy only the sensational trial will stand out with a suitably photogenic cast. Unfortunately for me but fortunately for Ireland these trials are extremely thin on the ground. It might sound cynical but that’s the name of the freelance game and it’s not one I have any chance of changing.
This year the one thing I keep coming back to is that I’m tired. I’m tired of justifying what I do. I’m tired of explaining the difference between a court reporter and a crime reporter (we cover the trials – they cover the crimes). I’m tired of arguing about my right to do my job and I’m tired of people taking exception to me describing things as I see them. I’m tired of the shocked looks when I describe my day in work – especially when it’s a day we’ve heard post mortem results. Most of all I’m tired of people thinking I’m a one-trick pony who only does one thing. I’ll have been working as a court reporter for six years come October and I’m ready for a change.
Now I know it’s not something I can just step away from. I’m the author of two books on memorable trials that still manage to make headlines. I’ve contributed to a couple of shows on true crime that still find their way into late night schedules. I still know what trials are coming up in the new law term and which ones will probably draw me back to court but there’s so much else. For the past three years I’ve written about murder trials here and in the Sunday Independent, on Facebook and on Twitter and jealously guarded the brand I was trying to build. But increasingly that’s not enough. I love the conversations I’ve had late at night on Twitter about 70s British sci-fi and horror films. I’m a total geek when it comes to fountain pens and old Russian cameras and I love French music. I’m currently obsessed with the idea of finding natural alternatives for the various potions I find myself slapping on my face far more earnestly than I did in my 20s and I’m resurrecting my ancient 1913 Singer sewing machine. I’m toying with the idea of starting a blog for fiction where I can post short stories and maybe start to outline another novel. It might mean confusing the Google bots who come to catalogue my daily ramblings but I want to give murder and prisons and social unrest a break for a while and talk about anything and everything else.
After all there’s so much more to life than death!
On Monday Justice Minister Dermot Ahern announced that comments posted on social networking sites could be defamatory. The papers the following day were full of headlines that warned users of Facebook and Twitter to be careful what they said because they could now be guilty of libel.
This is all fine and dandy but for one thing. They always could be. Libel covers any defamatory material that is written, printed or otherwise permanently represented. Surely any first year journalism student could work out that just as letters, emails, blogs or graffiti can be defamatory so can tweets or Facebook updates.
We should all be aware that what we write online is no different from something written in a newspaper or set down permanently in any other way. I have to be aware that anything I write online about the trials I cover is not going to land me in contempt of court just as I have to be careful with any copy I write for newspapers, magazines or books. Defamation is no different.
I understand that there are millions of people now writing stuff online who have not been taught a basic primer in defamation law that the average journalist receives in college but surely most people have a rough idea of what libel is?
The minister’s comments at the second annual report of the Press Ombudsman on Monday evening were indicative of a widespread assumption that online words somehow exist in a special alternative reality that needs special laws and special rules. The defamation laws are not suddenly applying to stuff that has been blissfully unregulated since it came into being, they always did. If online material is permanent then surely it is covered by the standard libel definition, just as letters to a third party have always been, just as graffiti has always been and just as blogs and emails are and have been proved to be in recent cases here in Ireland.
Yes the spectacular growth of social networking has given a lot of new ways to libel people but it beats me why this should come as a shock to anyone. The idea that online communities are in some way private, or at least give that impression, is often bandied around as as reason for why people are so cavalier about basic common sense online but this doesn’t really wash. You can commit libel in a letter to your mum…if you’re talking about a third party and the letter is put lovingly away in a box. It’s the making of defamatory comments to a third party that breaks the law. That could be over the counter in your local shop (talking the old offence of slander), over a pint in your local pub or standing with semaphore flags on your roof.
We should all be familiar with the basic idea of defamation. Now we all spend so much time writing down our defamatory thoughts, rather than cheerfully slandering people with gay abandon, we all need to be more aware of libel.
It’s something that internet forums have long needed to deal with, as has anyone who has to monitor comments on a website or blog and it’s not something that only journalists need to understand.
I remember being taught media law in college. Our lecturer came from the assumption that there was a lot we would already know. When did people stop assuming that? When did people start thinking that new rules applied? There are a lot of things that do need to be looked at afresh in light of modern technological changes, things that will have to be decided in the courts at some stage because they’ve never existed before. Defamation isn’t one of them.
Maybe it’s about time that social media sites or blogging platforms started to give people signing up a primer on the legal issues they’ll be facing. It could be something you had to work through before you could finish signing up…like reading the Terms and Conditions always is.
Commentators are fond of saying that we’re all journalists now. No we’re not, but we will all need to learn how not to defame people. It’s something we should all already know. It’s hardly rocket science. The penny is going to have to drop sometime that social networks are not some magic special case where the normal rules do not apply. It’s common sense. It shouldn’t be such a big shock that it makes headlines.
I was talking to a friend on Skype earlier today and the conversation turned to social networking…as it does. I was trying to explain the concept of Twitter to her and persuade her to give it a try and the conversation turned to the whole social networking phenomenon and how much the business of writing and researching has changed since we both studied journalism in college.
Now granted, since I learnt the ropes things have moved on from quarter in reel to reel recorder (one of these…, through minidiscs on to hardrive recorders. Elsewhere the revolution of being able to file copy from anywhere without having to use a copy taker or an ISDN line as long as you have access to an internet connection has made minute by minute breaking news achievable.
But apart from the tools we carry about with us to perform our daily business it’s the actual job that has changed almost beyond recognition over the year. I graduated from college in 2000. Back then learning how to use search engines was a fairly new part of the curriculum. These days, if the Internet went bang in the morning I wonder how many of us would remember how to do things the old fashioned way. There are so many routine inquiries that would have required several hours of judicial phone calls or knocks on doors that can now be answered by a few minutes Googling.
It’s something that we all take for granted yet still on occassion becomes something to marvel at. I’ve lost count of the number of times the press room in the Four Courts has been agog over a piece of video or audio that would have previously meant a search of the archives back at base that you might only have seen when it went to air. During the Joe O’Reilly trial, for example the footage of his appearance on the Late, Late Show in the company of his obviously uncomfortable mother-in-law three weeks after he had murdered his wife got an almost daily showing.
Similarly the video that Siobhan Kearney shot to publicise the guest house she and her husband Brian Kearney had run in Spain was played again and again in the media room during his trial for her murder.
These are the kinds of archive material that have always been obtainable but never quite as readily as they are now. These days colour writers wanting to describe an earlier event in vivid technicolour can call up their subject in a Google search rather than rely on rusty memories.
Even basic newsgathering is changing according to the advances in technology. Journalists can now look at someone’s Myspace or Facebook page. Incereasingly this is the first place to look in the case of murder victims. A Bebo memorial page set up in their honour is a source of photographs not just of them but of the friends and family who attend the court each day, a way of putting names to faces without intruding. In the recent trial of Finn Colclough, which I’ve written about at some length, journalists quickly found the Bebo page set up for victim Sean Nolan with the outpouring of grief from his devoted friends which still continues to this day.
We live in a technological world and it is at their peril that a journalist doesn’t move with the times. YouTube is the source for the kind of eye witness footage captured by increasingly high resolution mobile phones that news editors could have only dreamed of in the past. Twitter has become the new buzz word for a second by second stream of information from any major news event. You only have to look at the number of articles and courses springing up on electronic news gathering to see the impact it’s having.
As I discovered researching the book it’s now possible to gather information from the other side of the road simply sitting at your desk. I’m a great fan of the idea of VOIP (quite apart from the fact it allows me to chat with people who have decided to move back to Sweden and are no longer eligable to be my Call a Friend for Free!) I get very excited about the fact that I can Google someone or somewhere, go to their website then simply click on a phone number somewhere in that page of text and within seconds talk to them through Skype (using the Firefox Skype plugin).
As a writer too the advent of Web 2.0 has totally changed the reality of life. The fact that you have become some grungy creature who hasn’t change dout of your pajamas and who lives in a small pool of light over you cluttered desk and overheating laptop is no longer a barrier to you networking with editors or agents in any of the major cities.
Living in Ireland and not having access to a lot of writing festivals or author appearances where publishers and agents would be in attendance it’s fantastic. I can be as cheeky as I like in approaching people through Twitter or blogs (although it remains to be seen how successful my networking is – to date I’ve probably got most of my most concrete contacts the old fashioned way but I’m optimistic for the future).
I’m constantly in awe of all these changes. I love technology but I’m not young enough to be born to it. I remember what life was like in the dark Luddite days and I like the way things have changed. Personnally I think the reality is that this is simply a new way of doing something we’ve always done. I’m fascinated with the opportunities to self publicise that the Internet provides (obviously I’m aware of the blogging one) and the idea of virtual book tours and being able to reach a global audience is too exciting to pass up.
The Internet has allowed us to go back to the kind of old fashioned communities and intensive networking that were bog standard a century or more ago. These days we may hang out on Twitter, in the 18th Century coffee shops were all the rage. Thanks to Google I’m now in touch with a community gardening initiative that happens not five minutes from my front door.
I sometimes wonder what would happen if everything went bang (it’s a thought that feels natural with the ongoing economic doom and gloom) but I can’t help thinking we’d probably carry on much as we are now. We’d just have to get out more. As long as Armageddon isn’t coming any time soon, I’m happy enough with the way things are. We’ve come a long way, even if the communities we’re building hark back to earlier times and I for one am more than happy to embrace tweeting and blogging and exploring the big wide world from the comfort of my desk!