Reporting restrictions in Ambridge

PITY the poor court reporter on the Borsetshire Echo.

After years numbing their backside on the narrow press benches of that farming county’s courts, faithfully recording drink driving, poaching and a bit of argy-bargy of a weekend outside The Bull, they suddenly have a much bigger story on their hands.

You don’t have to be an Archers fan to know this tale of country folk has taken a sinister turn recently, culminating in Helen Titchener, nee Archer, plunging a knife, twice, into her abusive husband, Rob, almost causing a demise that many fans would have deemed rather timely.

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Helen (Louiza Patikis) and a not at all sinister-looking Rob (Timothy Watson)

The storyline, which has been building for a couple of years, has done a great deal to raise awareness of domestic abuse and the sort of ‘coercive control’ exerted by Rob on Helen. The reaction from the public has been extraordinary, summed up by the amazing response to an appeal launched by Paul Trueman, @paultrueman74 on Twitter.

He set about raising £1,000 for the charity Refuge, which helps victims of domestic violence. He set up a Justgiving page and the sum raised now stands at more than £127,000 .

Rob survived, Helen is behind bars awaiting trial, and her brother Tom has had a characteristically good whinge about the press coverage of his sister’s situation.

But what can the media report, if anything? Tom, while perusing the newsstands on the Sunday after Rob’s near-death, was horrified at the coverage – “They’re not meant to print anything,” he said, setting the teeth of this old court reporter on edge, and not just because of his shrill tone.

I doubt very much that Helen’s alleged offence would have attracted the attention of any national newspapers at this stage. She didn’t kill him, and there is nothing about her, or Rob, which would normally attract the attention of a national newspaper news desk, in my opinion. But let’s give the scriptwriters that bit of licence, as it allowed Tom to give the redtops a bit of a kick, which always plays well to middle England of a Sunday as they listen to the omnibus edition of The Archers, while reading their….er….redtops.

What then, are the rules on reporting this offence?

Firstly, when Helen was arrested, that means that proceedings in the case had ‘become active’ – the judicial ball is rolling and at some point in the future, Helen might face judge and jury. That means that any reporter working on the story ought to keep a weather-eye on the Contempt of Court Act 1981. This says that once proceedings are active you must not publish or broadcast anything which creates a ‘substantial risk of serious prejudice, or serious impediment’ to the proceedings.

So, what does that phrase mean? Is it a blackout on all coverage of the case?

Well no. The Contempt of Court Act was brought in to substantially replace the old common law of contempt, which was too draconian, and the new statute was intended to strike a balance between rights to a fair trial, and rights to freedom of expression.

So, as long as any detail you publish is not seriously prejudicial, then it should not cause you any difficulty. Note that prosecutions for contempt have to be authorised by the Attorney General, and cannot be taken against you by Borsetshire’s barmy magistrates, or even crown court judges – they have to refer it to the AG.

The sort of details that would be prejudicial are:

  • PIctures, E-fits, descriptions or video of a defendant ‘where identity is at issue at trial’ ie the accused is saying ‘it wasn’t me guv’nor’. There may be an ID parade and if you have published a photo, that reminds the eyewitness who to pick out, and it destroys the admissibility of their evidence. The Sun was fined £80k for this, and its then editor Kelvin MacKenzie was fined £20k. This is clearly not the case with Helen, but we often don’t know that for certain in the early stages of an inquiry, so you have to err on the side of caution.
  • Assumptions of guilt. Helen is not yet ‘the attempted murderer’ it is an allegation and can only be reported as such.
  • Evidence that will be disputed at trial. Be it Helen’s threat to kill her husband on Maundy Thursday, or Kirsty’s tales of Rob’s abuse that you have unearthed, you cannot report them yet. They cast the defendant and the victim in alight that might sway a juror, so should be avoided until the trial concludes.

Proceedings remain active until sentence according to the Act, but in practice you can run your background articles as soon as Helen is acquitted and carried shoulder-high from court…..sorry, or found guilty. Once either of these things happen, the jury is out of the equation and can no longer be influence by what you publish.

When Helen appears in court a different set of restrictions apply to what can be written. In the preliminary hearings before trial a report is mean to be restricted to:

  • Name of the court and magistrates
  • Name, age, address, occupation of the defendant
  • Names of the lawyers involved
  • Charges or a summary of them
  • What the court decides about the case – adjournment, allocation for trial etc
  • Arrangements for bail – residence, curfew etc
  • Whether legal as was granted

Pretty thin stuff, very procedural, as you can see. But if the Borsetshire Echo’s court reporter has anything about her, or him, they won’t let those restrictions get in the way of giving their reader a taste of court.

Descriptive passages detailing the oak-panelled grandeur of Felpersham Magistrates Court will be fine. Describing the organic, tie-dyed t-shirt that Helen wore for her first appearance will be ok too. Her mother, Pat, weeping in the public gallery, sitting beside Tony wringing his hands, again, will not be a breach of this law. What would be a problem here would be reporting any detail of prosecution evidence against Helen. A potential juror might read it and be more likely to find her guilty as a result.

However, if Helen’s counsel Anna Tregorran QC, wants to state during proceedings, or after, on the steps of the court, that her client would be vehemently denying the charges and expected to be acquitted on due course, that would be OK to report. Jurors are told to presume the defendant is not guilty and Ms Tregorran’s statement is merely affirming that. However, if Rob’s venomous mother Ursula, were to make a statement proclaiming that Helen was bang to rights, it’s a fair cop, she’s going down – that would not be allowed.

I also foresee a potential problem when this case comes to trial, in the shape of Helen’s young son, Henry. He witnessed the entire incident and will be called as a witness at trial. In such a case it would be very likely that the court would choose to anonymise him using a Section 45A order of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence act 1999. This would make reporting his evidence a little difficult.

The law says that any detail which allows someone to identify him is an offence. In such a case, even his age might be seen as an identifying detail. Caution is needed, and if in doubt the Echo’s court scribe ought to get some guidance from the judge on what details about Henry are likely to attract his ire.

One thing to note. Reports of trial proceedings are protected against a libel action by a defence called absolute privilege, for a fair, accurate report published at the same time as  the proceedings. So when, as I fully expect, Anna Tregorran shreds Rob Titchener in the witness box, revealing him as an abuser and a rapist, the Echo is free to splash that across its front without fear of Rob going to law.

I hope the Echo’s staff find this useful. If the editor is reading, I could squeeze a law refresher for the staff in before trial commences.

All of the above assumes that the scriptwriters aren’t going to throw us a curve ball and have Eddie and Joe Grundy spring her from a prison van and hide her away in the wilderness of rural Borsetshire. We live in hope.

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