Reporting on the Law

Reporting on legal cases is a specialist skill. It requires the journalist to be at least familiar with the procedures of how a case is heard and what the steps are along the way. Sometimes, a journalist will be sent out to report on a court case without sufficient experience or training to interpret what they see or hear for their readers. After a Motion in the Shell case, for example, I was approached by a reporter for a national newspaper who asked whether the case had just finished up for good. She had been in the back throughout.

This wasn’t her fault- the arcana of the difference between an motion and a hearing of the main action isn’t obvious to a casual observer- but it was the fault of the editor who had sent her as her reader’s representative without providing her with the training to make sense of what she was seeing.

On the other hand there are times when it is worth remembering that special training isn’t required for all kinds of reporting on a court case. Mostly, sticking to the presumed journalistic traits of skepticism and research are all that’s needed. Take this weekend’s news that two clients of McGarr Solicitors, where I work, are taking a case to challenge the constitutionality of the decision not to revise the boundaries of the constituencies to take population changes into account.

For those interested, the full Statement of Claim by the Catherine Murphy and Finian McGrath is available. This sets out what is being argued, and what remedies are being sought.

Now, without getting into a discussion of the merits of this case, I’d like to discuss RTE’s treatment of the story. The National Broadcaster usually falls outside the self imposed limits of the Paper Round by dint of not producing a paper, but I think it worthwhile to reflect for a moment on how this story has been presented there. The weight RTE gives to a story is generally indicative of the importance other media outlets will ascribe to it. So here is a High Court case being taken on Constitutional grounds by sitting TDs asserting that the government is failing to live up to our basic laws governing the fairness of elections. After the story broke on Sunday morning, RTE covered the challenge on the followingMonday’s Six One News. It carried, without challenge, the statement of an anonymous government spokesman given off camera that

‘There was unequivocal advice from the Attorney General that the constituency boundaries should be based on the final census figures due at the end of the month.’

That would be these final census figures (see page 5), released by the CSO on the 29th of March, available from their website since then and cited in the publicly available Statement of Claim?

After their 36 hours of hard research, could the RTE newsroom not have assisted their viewers by correcting or challenging the misleading statement from their anonymous source? Whose interests are served by their failure to do so?

2 Comments

  • Celtictigger says:

    Maybe De Minister was hoping that the CSO would ‘lose’ a few housing estates here and there in the final final cut… a bit like the ‘clean-up’ of the electoral register did (in particular in Wicklow)?

    In any event, there were sufficient warnings in the early estimates and returns from the Census (how a full year flies by the way) that a sensible person might have seen fit to have, say.. a plan and perhaps some draft legislation or some form of contingency other than “ignore it it will go away”.

  • That’s really lazy journalism. Any reporter should at least scan lexis-nexis before going along to a court case. It’s a quick, reliable and informative source that makes hackery a lot easier than it once was. Very surprised that slipped through – editors generally catch that stuff. I suppose it could have been a last minute job, deadline approaching, no time to check…but still. It’s not good enough is it?

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