3rd January 2021
At the end of last year two legal correspondents retired.
Owen Bowcott at the Guardian:
After 32 years on The Guardian, I’m closing my notebook and stepping down from the press bench at the end of the year. Huge thanks to everyone who helped me understand. Apologies for stories missed.— Owen Bowcott (@owenbowcott) December 29, 2020
And Clive Coleman at the BBC:
My last day as BBC Legal Correspondent. Huge thanks to all the brilliant colleagues I've worked with over my 10 yrs, those in the legal world, and the amazing people who've trusted me to cover their stories. It's been a privilege. A v v happy NY to all. On to new challenges.— clive coleman (@colemancr) December 31, 2020
It is an end of an era.
Yes, there are still full-time legal correspondents in the United Kingdom: at the Times and at the Financial Times.
But in both those cases the journalism is behind a paywall – and that is not an accident, as funding full-time specialised correspondents in any area is an expensive business, and if you want good specialised journalism in this internet age you do have to pay for it.
With the retirements of Owen Bowcott and Clive Coleman there is now no longer (as far as I am aware, and I would be delighted to be corrected) any full-time specialised legal correspondent at any news provider whose reporting is available generally to the public.
The nearest we have is Joshua Rozenberg, who is not exclusively attached to any news organ, providing reportage and comment at a number of titles and now on his own blog.
Does this matter?
This demise of the legal correspondents comes at the same time where an understanding of how law works is as – if not more – important than ever.
Without legal correspondents it will be left to generalist journalists to report on, say, high-profile legal cases and the legal aspects of government policy.
And this in turn will increase the influence of (so-called) litigation PR specialists (who effectively provide copy to the media favourable to their clients involved in legal cases) and ministerial special advisers leaking spin-ridden and distorted accounts of law-related policy.
This is not to say there are not good generalist journalists reporting on legal matters but to observe that there will be an imbalance between the time-poor reporter without a bank of expertise and the well-resourced or well-informed but highly motivated source.
Having a specialised legal correspondent at a news title who was not reliant on PR or governmental sources meant there was detachment and reliability in their reports from court and the frontline of legal activity.
And this has now gone.
Something has been lost, and it will not be regained.
The demise of the legal correspondents, however, comes at a time where reliable legal information is more freely available than freely before.
The Supreme Court has an outstanding site that not only provides case reports but also summaries and other useful information, and the UK judiciary site provides not only newsworthy case reports but also the judges’ sentencing remarks in high-profile and controversial cases.
It has never been easier for the spirited citizen to gain information about the law and to understand its application in particular examples.
Few lay people will bother – as screens full of dry text are daunting and the law is (or at least looks) complicated.
A screen suddenly full of legal verbiage is as scary or bewildering to a lay person as a page suddenly full of source code.
Legal information may well be free to all – but unless you have relevant experience and know your way round legal instruments and other legal documents, such access is only of theoretical value.
But what of legal bloggers and tweeters?
Surely they (we) can step in and fill the gap between the law and the public understanding of law?
Here there are two problems.
Many leading legal bloggers and tweeters are of two types.
First, there are the legal academics – and many are as brilliant in explaining substantive ‘black letter’ law to lay people as they are to their lucky students.
But the academic exposition of substantive law is only one aspect of the public understanding of law – few legal academics will report from the courtroom in trials where there is little of academic interest, nor will they be routinely invited to Whitehall press briefings, nor develop sources such as judges and practitioners just for providing news.
And, analysis and commentary – however outstanding – is not the same as reportage.
Much the same can be said of the second group of legal bloggers and tweeters – legal practitioners such as barristers (and a few solicitors).
The additional problem with this second group is that – even more than academics who often need to show ‘outreach’ – such legal communication is voluntary and often haphazard.
Blogging and tweeting barristers (and solicitors) are not paid for explaining the law to the public and – with controversial legal topics – not compensated for the hassle and abuse they will get.
There will be uneven coverage – a lawyer will tend to only write about matters as and when they feel they have something to say about something they know about – and so this can lead to some areas of law being over-represented and other areas of law being neglected.
Blogging and tweeting lawyers – both academics and practitioners – are a boon to the public understanding of law – but they (we) are no substitute for specialised full-time legal correspondents dealing with law-related news stories as they emerge on any topic, with detachment and perspective.
For that you need, well, full-time specialised legal correspondents at news organisations – and they are coming to an end.
But there is an even more disconcerting problem, at this time of hyper-partisanship, ‘post-truth fake news’, and populism.
In the United States there are still many specialised courts and legal correspondents – and they have been diligent in exposing and reporting on the various abuses of law and legal process by President Donald Trump and his allies.
Each presidential assault on constitutional and legal norms in the United States has been documented and explained.
And it has made very little difference.
Many people do not care.
As this blog averred on New Year’s Eve – there is no point in the observant Benjamin the Donkey in Animal Farm being more public-spirited, if the other farm animals would not have cared less.
And so, in the United kingdom, even if every news title had a squadron of legal correspondents detailing the many abuses and misuses of law from this supposedly ‘law and order’ government then – looking at the United States – there is no reason to believe it would make any difference.
This, therefore, is the crisis in the public understanding of law referred to in the title of this blogpost.
The crisis is not that we are at the end of specialised reporting of legal news.
The crisis in the public understanding of law is that most of the public do not want to understand law.
A significant portion of the public do not want to understand the law, or care about how the law is misused or abused.
And how do you promote the public understand of law when so few of the public care?
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