Friday, 8 March 2013

Mike Pearce from one old hack to the brave new world of citizen journalists

Despite it being about me, complete with picture in stripey jumper, I'd like to give the old hack, Mike Pearce a high five for his column in today's Thanet Gazette  [Are Louise's tweets the future of court news?] for getting to the crux of the importance of citizen journalism in today's era of media cutbacks within the brave new landscape of social media. A landscape that is further picked up on in Smudger where it's noted how many Twitter refuseniks signed up to the service to follow or comment on the two week Ezekiel trial. I guess most have found that it doesn't bite, but hopefully they will realise the potential to bite before they hit the send button. Citizen journalists have a thing or two to learn from traditional media folk, and one hopes, vice versa.
 The most significant player in the Ezekiel trial may prove not to be the former council leader, nor even the judge, but a woman who runs a Margate B&B.
More of her later. It is what she did that could prove a seminal moment in court reporting.
Two years ago, the Lord Justice ruled that journalists can tweet, text, or e-mail from court, but this does not extend to the public, unless special application is made to the judge.
Which is exactly what Louise Oldfield did - and when Mr Justice Nicol agreed, she made the 86-mile round trip to Maidstone Crown Court from where she tweeted as-it happened updates for nine days.
To understand the significance, one must appreciate what happened to the newspaper industry even before we started turning to the internet for news.
When newspapers were family-owned, towns often had two, three or even more titles, employing teams of reporters which would be considered absurdly large in today's climate.
The coming of free newspapers - in which advertising revenue often loomed larger than social responsibility - pulled the rug from under traditional publishers. Most were mopped up by large corporates or went out of business.
To profit-focused owners, reporters were not revenue earners and were fair game when jobs had to be shed.
Once, a local reporter would be found in most magistrates courts and all crown courts.
There are probably fewer than half the number of journalists there were a generation ago. Today's editors, however willing, are hard-pressed to lose a reporter for a couple of days, let alone the couple of weeks, a major trial might last, a depressing thought if one takes the traditional view that press exposure is part of the punishment for the criminal.
Does the Oldfield application mean we could see an army of tweeters, broadcasting the minutiae of hearings?
Not necessarily.
Louise, who runs The Reading Rooms in Hawley Square - recently named by The Times as its favourite B&B - has shown it is possible, but she is not the Average Joe.
Among other things, she led the fight against the Arlington Tesco plan, chairs an independent traders' group, was an important player in the team that won Portas Pilot money to improve the High Street - and even found time recently to weed the public rose beds in Hawley Square.
But as well as acumen, would-be court tweeters need a working knowledge of the law and court proceedings and be able to assimilate and condense hours of evidence with unerring accuracy.
Louise had to assure the Judge she understood the responsibility to be fair, balanced and honourable.
Her application was groundbreaking. It was the first the court usher had known, the clerk felt it unlikely she would get permission.
After a hand-written note to the judge, followed by a brief discussion between defence and prosecution counsel, Louise was told she could tweet and use her ipad to take notes for her blog.
Did the significance of the Ezekiel trial merit a fortnight of long journeys, lengthy hours in a court room and the ever-present pressure that she must get nothing wrong?
"Open justice is one of the reasons why the UK judicial system is the finest in the world," she tells me."Appearing before the public means those giving testimony are more likely to be truthful. Knowing that testimony will be reported back honourably to the local community is an intrinsic part of this."
Her reports have earned her an admiring band of followers. It has even been suggested she stands for election in Ezekiel's council ward, which would be ironic - but not as important as the role she may have played in shaping the future of court reporting."


  1. You are now very important

  2. The role of citizen journalists is, yes.

  3. Blimey, an intelligent report from Mike Pearce, and he didn't even mention your age!!

  4. Top bombing Louise, we could do with a few more like you.