Justice in the Media

Justice Media AwardsIt’s an old story by now, but I missed it at the time, and I stumbled upon it today. It begins with a worthy event, the Law Society of Ireland‘s Justice Media Awards, established to give national recognition to legal journalism in various categories. To my mind, the categories are rather narrow, confined as they are in effect to full-time journalists in the traditional media, but that’s a minor quibble which I am sure will be addressed in the future by the addition of a new, more general, category (perhaps named for a significant figure associated with the Society). In any event, the 2008 awards were presented late last year, and at the event Mr Justice Adrian Hardiman of the Supreme Court made a speech which caused some controversy. For example, writing the Irish Times the following day, Carl O’Brien (one of the winners on the night) reported that Hardiman

… has sharply criticised the media for its “inadequate and uninformative” coverage of the courts. Speaking at the Law Society annual Justice Media Awards, he accused the media of rushing to comment on judges’ rulings without properly examining or understanding them.

The Irish Times later published the full text of the speech here. And I have to say that in this, Hardiman is absolutely right. His solution was to ask for more rigour in court reporting, and more co-operation between the courts and the media. This is all to the good, but I think his analysis is lacking, in that the problem – if such it be – is not confined to reporting of the courts: it is endemic in how everything is reported, from the most serious political developments to sports to entertainment – everything suffers from the rush to comment, from the focus on the human interest to the detriment of the detail. Indeed, Hardiman’s grumble that

… even the result [in a given case] and its significance is often distorted as the reporter or some editor focuses on some incidental but picturesque detail, or on the need for a headline

could just as easily apply to the reporting of any other event as it does to the reporting of the courts. This is not to say that it is a good thing; merely to say that it is not confined to Hardiman’s context – it is a function of reporting in general. And the problem may really be not with the reporters and editors who give the public what they want, but with us, the public, in wanting it in the first place. And if that is the real problem, the solutions will have to be much broader than those proposed by Hardiman.

This has not prevented Hardiman from attracting criticism for his comments. For example, in another Irish Times report, Prof Finbarr McAuley, Jean Monnet Professor of European Criminal Justice in UCD and a member of the Law Reform Commission, objected that

… it is not sensible for judges to get into controversy with parts of civil society that might appear as litigants in the courts. It’s fine for judges to make statements about technical aspects of the law. But making controversial statements is unwise.

This is a counsel of prudence, rather than of principle; and in principle I don’t see why judges shouldn’t make such comments. Indeed, it might be better that they should, to avoid subsequent problems with conflicts of interest.

However, the controversy was stoked to artificial heights by what seems to me to be an uncalled for mischaracterisation of some of Hardiman’s remarks. In the published version of his speech, in urging amity between the bench and the media, he said

in the words of Rogers and Hammerstein, in Oklahoma!, that:

“The farmer and the cowman should be friends”.

Expanding on this in later discussion, he is reported to have referred to women court correspondents as “cowgirls”, a phrase which was said to have surprised the media and to show his lack of judgment.

I wasn’t at the event, unfortunately. But, to my mind, this aspect of the controversy is a storm in a tea-cup, unnecessarily distracting from the real issue. Hardiman was making an important point, and rather than engaging with the specific problem he was identifying, or with the more general social malaise of which it is simply an exemplar, the media chose instead to focus on a throwaway wisecrack (which, uncharacteristically, seems to have been ill-judged). It seems to me that the media were quick to perceive a mote in Hardiman’s eye, whilst failing entirely to consider the beam in their own.

In the end, because there is no such thing as bad publicity, it was all good publicity for the Justice Media Awards. I wonder whether Mr Justice Hardiman might be the first recipient of the new, more general, category award I posited at the outset? If not, perhaps it might be named for him?