Court reporting has been part of Australian journalism since the launch of the first newspaper in 1803.
The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser captured colonial readers with graphic accounts of murders, more restrained reports of sex crimes and ‘entertaining’ tales about minor offences. Published weekly after inspection and (sometimes) censorship by the governor’s secretary, the Sydney Gazette produced lengthy and moralistic stories, which stretched to coverage of hangings. Readers learned whether convicted criminals repented or were defiant before facing the gallows. One of the first reported trials was the murder of a constable, whose body was found with a cutlass embedded in his head in August 1803. Readers followed the accounts as they might a serial, with each instalment revealing legal twists and turns.
Since then, major criminal trials result in newspaper circulation boosts. Most criminal cases involve guilty pleas by offenders to charges ranging from the mundane to the serious. Journalists choose the unusual and controversial cases to cover in depth. They rely on the open court principle, and a legal privilege to report fairly and accurately, but the commercial motive to sell information is a major part of Australia’s (mostly) private media companies. The Myall Creek massacre of Aborigines in 1838, the Ned Kelly trial in 1880, underworld murders and personal scandals in various decades, and more lately terrorism trials in different states, have typified the media focus on legal reporting.
The 32-year legal saga involving Lindy Chamberlain over the death of her daughter Azaria is a classic journalism target. The combination of religion, mystery and a child’s death suited worldwide media narratives. Chamberlain’s murder conviction on flawed evidence, followed by her subsequent release from prison and exoneration, made hers the biggest court story of its time. The case has been described as ‘trial by media’, but journalistic and academic research suggests a broader picture. Media outlets produced hostile and exploitative stories that promoted public opinion against Chamberlain. But journalistic endeavours also helped to secure her release, and dissenting reports raised doubts about the initial guilty verdict. In 2012, a coroner found that a dingo had killed Azaria Chamberlain in 1980.
Crime and scandal have not been the only court reporting focus. Judges have publicly regretted the disbanding of a High Court press gallery that covered constitutional cases. Other journalists used their skills to report on Royal Commissions and other inquiries. Commercial and personal injuries cases, challenges to government decisions and appeals against perceived injustices were also court story subjects. In Victoria, court reporters have covered cases for decades regarding the 1964 collision between two naval vessels, HMAS Voyager and HMAS Melbourne off the NSW coast. Eighty-two men died and others were injured in the disaster.
Court rounds were also considered ideal training grounds for young reporters. Often mentored in a collegiate setting by senior journalists, they learned the need for accuracy, attention to detail and an ability to obtain and verify information. In 1986, Sydney Morning Herald journalists told students they needed poker-faced impartiality, the ability to talk to lawyers and others, accuracy, curiosity bordering on voyeurism and a strong stomach to cover courts.
Technology has changed the discipline. From the early 19th to the late 20th century, newspaper reporters attended court and took notes of proceedings before returning to their press rooms or media offices to file their stories. Some became skilled at dictating stories via public telephones to copy-takers, who typed the articles for publication.
Greater attendance by radio and television journalists took stories out of the courtrooms and into the street, where media ‘packs’ could interview police, lawyers and those affected by crimes. Sketch artists can depict relevant parties in proceedings for publication, but the use of cameras in criminal and civil cases is still limited. Audio recordings of sentencing remarks and other decisions have been allowed. Some jurisdictions have let reporters use laptop computers, mobile phones and tablets to record and/or transmit information from hearings. Judges once delivered decisions by reading them for hours in open court, but many now summarise the result, and release written and online versions within minutes. The Victorian Supreme Court has tweeted important decisions and announcements since late 2011.
While some critics have pointed to a decline in the number of court stories written in an era of under-staffed newsrooms, others have noted courts’ proactive attitudes to provide audiences with direct access to their decisions. Audio and video links on court websites—shared with mainstream media—have removed journalistic filters.
REF: P. Gregory, Court Reporting in Australia (2005).