The last of the legal correspondents, and the true crisis in the public understanding of law

3rd January 2021

At the end of last year two legal correspondents retired.

Owen Bowcott at the Guardian:

And Clive Coleman at the BBC:

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.

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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.

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The demise of the legal correspondents, however, comes at a time where reliable legal information is more freely available than freely before.

In the United Kingdom, for example, legislation is set out at the legislation.gov site and jusdgments at the BAILII site.

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.

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But.

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.

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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.

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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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16 thoughts on “The last of the legal correspondents, and the true crisis in the public understanding of law”

  1. With regards to all the shenanigans going on in the States with the claimed election fraud, the thing that amazes me is not just that so many people believe it, but that many of them are what you would consider to be intelligent, successful people.

    Has the age of hyper partisan news networks and social media accounts created a situation where people simply aren’t getting any kind of constructive counterpoint (the proverbial echo chamber), other than blunt, often rude, exchanges in the comments sections?

    I don’t know what the ultimate solution is, but I would like to see critical thinking taught to all children as a stand alone subject in school, not just a select few who enrol on certain higher education courses.

    It would be nice if school children were also taught how our system of democracy was supposed to work. I don’t ever remember being taught about things like the separation of powers, the roles of the judiciary and parliament and so on.

    1. I couldn’t agree more regarding education. It just didn’t happen throughout mine in the 60s and 70s and what I know, I have picked up piecemeal, and particularly laterally via Brexit coverage of Parliament. How can a democracy function well when the majority of its citizens don’t know how it functions?

      1. Neil Postman, 1969, in “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” described the role of education as being to equip every student with a built-in crap detector. I’ve done my best to educate myself….

  2. I could make the same comments about health correspondents. There used to be generalists who had a bank of knowledge and relationships. They knew those who would give a good objective explanation of medical issues. General public don’t care , this is clear in COVId . Reporting of main stream media has been with few exceptions not balanced or helpful

    1. I’d agree with that. Many health (or science) correspondents or journalists in the media seem to be Arts graduates and to have only a passing knowledge of these subjects. Indeed, many of their medical reports are little more than a copy/paste job on drug manufacturers’ press releases.

      However, the New Scientist is a reliable source of information and is written by scientific or medical specialist journalists. Even complex subjects are described intelligently and (relatively) simply.

      Perhaps there’s a place for a similar magazine specialising in law and policy.

  3. The two retirements are indeed to be lamented, especially as there is no sign of the journalists concerned being replaced. But the situation is even graver than you suppose: BAILII is a charity and its funding is dependent on support from the legal community. It is not comprehensive in its coverage and its search function is rudimentary. The legislation.gov.uk website is a marvellous resource but it is not wholly up to date; commercial publishers are often more reliable when it comes to checking the most recent version of a statute or statutory instrument.

  4. While much improved Legislation.gov.uk still compares poorly with the EU service – EUR-lex. For example it only provides consolidated versions of a small part of the increasingly important and large volume of secondary legislation. The consolidated versions do not allow “time travel” ie to see current and future states of the legislation and the annotations that seek to explain the amendments to legislation are cryptic. The service does not provide the volume of meta data that EUR-lex provides eg on dates of entry into force, links to secondary legislation based on the powers in the legislation, links to case law based on the legislation, etc. The service also does not provide preparatory materials for legislation, bills, explanatory notes, consultation papers, etc many of which are located in the even more difficult to navigate national archive.

  5. I have an interest in U.K. human rights and wish to point out that Joshua Rozenberg’s blog is a subscription site, too. Happy New Year and good luck with your book on Brexit. I hope it sells well.

    I’m a Canadian stock market trader and disability studies specialist (born with cerebral palsy) who has been communicating with the UN since 2012 on the welfare crisis impacting U.K.’s sick and disabled people. I also campaign daily on Twitter.

  6. What you draw attention to is worrying. As others have commented, the same applies in some other specialist fields. The initiative which started in science some two decades ago may be of interest.
    https://www.sciencemediacentre.org/about-us/
    The Centre is now funded by over 60 organisations, with individual donations currently capped at £30,000 per annum. The SMC receives sponsorship from a range of funders including media organisations, universities, scientific and learned societies, the UK Research Councils, government bodies, Quangos, charities, private donors and corporate bodies.
    I had some contact with them in their early days when there was a need to improve coverage re journalism on MMR vaccine and GM foods. What they could do then was fairly modest – but over the years their organisation seems to have taken root, grown and resulted in some better coverage than would otherwise have existed.
    It may be that there are some people in today’s Commons/Lords who might help to get s something going re future of journalism and the law etc. There still seems to be a dearth of scientists in the Commons – but not lawyers!! The Lords is well blessed with both. Organisations like the Hansard Society and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, Liberty, Howard League, PRT as well as some Law Firms

  7. It might be worth looking to the US for a model of what great legal reporting looks like these days. Anyone who’s followed Adam Klasfeld (lawandcrime.com) or Brad Heath (Reuters) will have had a fascinating inside track on the Trumpist shenanigans, especially since the 3 November election. The quality – and wit – of their writing, often done in real time as court cases unfold, is outstanding.

  8. David
    “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?”

    You’re right of course, but I don’t think it’s just a question of apathy, has there ever been a time when a significant portion of the public “cared” about the law, until it applied to them directly.

    I think it goes further than that.

    It’s routine in my experience, for people to see the courts as politically motivated, which they are increasingly encouraged to do by those who should be defending the essential checks & balances of our democracy as opposed to deliberately undermining them. This of course only applies (and I’ve made this point before) when the Courts deliver politically inconvenient decisions.

    It means instant dismissal of the verdicts of our most experienced/and/or finest legal minds, to be replaced by the allegedly wise words of the Rees-Moggs of this world, and unquestioning acceptance of the need to “reform” the judiciary, which is the aim of unreasonably ‘politicising’ the Courts in the first place.

    PK

  9. Oh dear. I read the piece about Benjamin as suggesting that those of us who could, should make some noise and not just “tut” quietly to ourselves; and then the first half here as a call to arms.

    But then the ending suggests it might not be worthwhile at all.

    Another straw in the wind here is the virtual non-existence of legal aid these days, which in a practical sense makes the law a tool of the rich, and of little use to others. The law is rarely available to most people with a problem (contract, employment, tort, land, tenancy, family, criminal) for which a lawyer might be able to help them find a legal solution.

    Perhaps the robots and AI might help with some aspects eventually – drafting standard contracts from checklists; identifying causes of action, filing and determining cases (just like they might with aspects of medicine – diagnosis, say, or radiographic interpretation – or other professions) but I am not holding my breath.

  10. You ask: ‘How do you promote the public understand of law when so few of the public care?’. One way would be to ensure that the public knew what cases were listed in the County Court, where the great majority of cases are heard. Although the daily cause list is published, no-one uninvolved can easily tell whom or what a case concerns. The fact that Jones v Smith is to be heard on Monday interests no-one; the fact that Mrs Jones is bringing a claim arising from an assault by Mr Smith, her neighbour, or from deception by Mr Smith, a local tradesman, would interest local residents and journalists more. I would make the daily cause lists available free and include the full names of the parties and a summary of the nature of the claim and the place where, and date when, it arose, for example: ‘Jennifer Jones v Simon Smith. Claim for damages for an alleged assault in Anytown on 15th June, 2020’.

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