Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Reporting the courts: You got the occasional plea - and faced the occasional threat

By Iain M Hepburn, @imhepburn 
Back in the dim and distant past, and I was a young and slimmer district reporter, Stonehaven Court was my home of a Tuesday.  Sometimes on a Thursday too, but always on a Tuesday.
There was a set pattern - one you could set your clocks by.  In fact I suspect the sitting Sheriff in my time there, the venerable but occasionally cheeky Sandy Jessop, often did.
10am starts every day.  Mondays would be custody hearings for weekend arrests.  Tuesday was criminal cases before the Sheriff.  Tuesday afternoon would be overspill from the morning, or Sheriff trials if it was a light day.  Wednesday was civil court.  Thursday was a day of Sheriff trials again.  Friday was district court.
Invariably it’d be me and Crawford, the old hand from the Mearns Leader, sat on the press bench.  Occasionally we might be joined by Gary Cooper from the Courier if something from the Angus border was sitting.  Occasionally, if Ken or Susan from Northscot agency joined us, it meant something tasty was scheduled for the day.
There’s a pattern, a routine to covering court for any length of time, particularly in a smaller local community.  You get on nodding, then chatting, terms with all the solicitors, and the local bobby assigned to the courtroom.  
If you’re good, or lucky, you build a relationship with the PF’s office to be aware of what’s coming up - although Stonehaven’s PF at the time, a grumbling James Robertson Justice lookalike called Barbour, notoriously hated the paper, and seemed to go of his way to be difficult.
And you start to identify patterns in the court lists.  Names from out of town tend to be motoring offences - truckers done for tachograph violations, or drivers caught out by the A90’s notorious run of speed cameras.  Local addresses were likely breach of the peace or similar offences .  If there was someone in fatigues in the public benches, it meant a squaddie from Balmoral or 45 Commando was up.
You get to recognise names from repeat offenders - always a tricky one, because it builds up in your mind what they’ve done before.  Occasionally you see folk you know: an old school classmate of mine was up for breaking the peace after a post-pub rammy in a car park.  The walk of shame out of court took him past my seat in press row.  His face was a picture.
Trials were always a sod.  A good trial could take up a full day, possibly more, and in a one-man office that could be costly.  Was the day-long trial of drunken girl flashing her knickers and dryhumping passers-by a good enough page lead to sacrifice covering a major planning hearing in Aboyne?  At what point do you nip out to phone the desk and summon a snapper without missing something good?  Reporting became a balancing act.
You got the occasional plea - ‘please don’t write this in the paper, it’ll cost me my job’ - and faced the occasional threat - ‘write this in the paper and I’ll break your arms’.  Had both of those.  Even had the defendant come into my office in the town square and menace me during a week-long assault trial - bit of a giveaway over his guilt, that one.
But the whole of human life was also there, write large on the faces of those in court.
Grumbling, wizened old hacks tend to moan about court reporting being a lost art, but in many ways it’s true.  News cutbacks even on a regional level means many good tales are lost or overlooked by papers and broadcasters in favour.  People want big stories and big name trials.  
But court reporting - and all that comes with it - is the bread and butter of local journalism, a fact that should never be lost.
Iain M Hepburn's blog can be found here: [The Drum]
Copyright remains with the author.

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