Why live reporting court proceedings is not ideal - and some possible solutions
Co-authored by Pragya Narayanan* & Ananth Krishna
The traditional methods and manners of journalism have been revolutionized to an extent never seen before due to the advent of technology. The mass-use of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube has decentralised and democratised access to information and devalued the role of journalists as gatekeepers to information. Similar effects have rippled through the sphere of legal journalism as well. While in the past, arguments in court would only appear in the next day’s paper as a report or a later broadcast about proceedings by a TV journalist, the use of social media, especially Twitter, has made broadcasting in real-time by legal media platforms such as Bar & Bench and LiveLaw a reality.
While quite revolutionary in demystifying the courts and increasing the transparency of the judicial system this also comes with its own set of problems, as we found out recently. For those unaware, the Chief Justice of India, S. A. Bobde was asked to clarify remarks he made during a hearing that had been taken out of context. The merits of those remarks or that of the clarifications is a matter to consider separately, but there is definitely a question on whether or not these arguments should be live-tweeted considering the possible perils. A misquoted statement or a sentence without context can have serious repercussions on the perception of the judiciary and judicial system. While courts are to be accessible to the public and transparency is important, the possibility of miscommunication in mass social media platforms by a legal journalist live-tweeting is not negligible.
Similarly, Justice Arun Mishra has accused Bar & Bench and Live Law of reporting in a biased manner:
The issue clearly merits our attention and requires careful study to arrive at a better system of reporting events inside the court.
The live reporting of court proceedings is not a new development in foreign jurisdictions. There are virtually no restrictions on reporting in this manner. Up until 2011, live reporting of proceedings in the United Kingdom was allowed only if prior permission was obtained from the Court. Some courts in the United States have precluded such correspondence by prohibiting electronic devices in the courtrooms altogether.
In a world where information is considered power, those who are successful in relaying that information the fastest are most powerful. A major part of India’s leading legal news portals’ journalism involves reporters live-tweeting hearings from courts across the country. Although this type of coverage has its benefits, it would be foolish to ignore the pitfalls. Reporting hearings takes an obvious amount of expertise. Understanding the arguments made by the parties, the Court’s observations and transmitting this to the rest of the world cannot be taken lightly. Some of the misinterpretation by legal journalists can be overlooked and attributed to the haste of the correspondents but most of it could potentially mislead the readers and followers of these portals.
In August 2019, while covering the Ram Mandir-Babri Masjid hearings, a Bar and Bench reporter tweeted a quote by Justice DY Chandrachud saying “Hinduism in that sense is different, Hindus can worship in a place where Namaz is offered”. These comments led to widespread dissatisfaction and were met with criticism. It was however indicated that that was not the case, and that the remarks were not made in a disparaging manner. In 2017, the Delhi High Court constituted a committee under (Retd.) Justice Ruma Pal invited suggestions from the public on the media reporting of court matters and whether live-tweeting the proceedings should be permitted. However, there is no further information on what exactly happened with the committee.
The Press Council of India in its norms of journalistic conduct advises caution in criticizing the judiciary and asks publications to not publish anything in the nature of a running commentary. Yet, live-tweeting court proceedings does exactly that. Reportage of this kind allows for users on the platform to debate and discuss the Court’s remarks as they happen, defeating the purpose of these norms. Additionally, the norms implore reporters/editors to ascertain the genuineness and correctness of the information about court proceedings. The PCI also lays emphasis on the distinction that exists between observations made during a proceeding and information which is either part of the record or Order. This evidences the need for a mechanism that accredits courtroom reporters who have some minimum qualification that will ensure fair and truthful reporting.
The Code of Practice of the Editors’ Guild of India (forum for editors of newspapers and magazines) specifically addresses the need for accurate reporting. According to the Code, the Editor of a portal has an obligation to cultivate a culture among the staff members and reporters to put out only those facts that are absolutely reliable.
Creating Self-Regulation: A necessity. The role played by these portals in creating and furthering the Court’s reputation and image is undeniable. The culture of sensational reporting and deliberately focussing on comments that may have been made in passing take away from the bottom line of the court’s decisions and make the waters around this reputation murky. Instantaneous transmission is also the greatest obstruction in the way of right and accurate information reaching the public. Rushing to publish the next tweet often results in reporters compromising on fully understanding the Court’s remarks. A court hearing, therefore, cannot be treated like any other content that is published on news websites. It will probably be more helpful to the public if reporters were to tweet out highlights and analysis of a hearing instead of live-tweeting every minute of it. This will also ensure that the information being tweeted is error-free.
Presently, the general public does not have a mechanism to examine the veracity of the courtroom reporter’s tweets, they take them at their word. The cost of this is a misinformed population who can be misled by comments bereft of context. While both Live Law and Bar & Bench both state that they give editorial clearance for tweets, that does not take away the appearance that the court might be biased or partial. Political accounts from both sides regularly weaponize the tweets of the news portals to alleged the judiciary as a political enemy.
The service provided by these portals and other legal correspondents who live-tweet information are undertaking an important task by ensuring transparency and access to court proceedings for the general public. While their service is important, some pause is required to ensure that judicial proceedings are reported in a fair and accurate manner. An introspection is required to this end. Some possible solutions One of the solutions to provide access to public to judicial proceedings is to provide live streaming of court proceedings, something that has been pending for a while in the Supreme Court.
In a submission made to the earlier mentioned Justice Ruma Pal committee, online portal Medianama opposed the accreditation of journalists to report on court proceedings and supported live tweeting but stated:
“There would be no need to live-tweet court proceedings if cases were being live-streamed. That there was live tweeting, and we’re having this debate, is only indicative of the fact that there was demand for listening to/viewing/reading about those proceedings: transparency in court proceedings serve public interest. However, until live-streaming is permitted, it is beneficial to the larger public that those in court can keep them informed, whether by live-blogging or live-tweeting.”
In this context, it would be more than prudent to provide for live streaming of court proceedings and extinguish the need for live-tweeting or live-blogging altogether. Yet another alternative is to create an accreditation system for journalists. Other options include mandating an editorial delay or requiring that tweets only be sent after the conclusion of a hearing. Alternatively, since most of the misinformation is being spread via Twitter, it would be better for the information to be relayed purely through liveblogs on the website. Although this diminishes the reach of information and may not be in the interest of portals. Reporting court proceedings is an important function of a democracy that provides transparency in a system that is most alien to the common man. Courts are sources of mystery, respect and admiration. Since most of the common man, including educated persons would be unfamiliar with court proceedings and process, there is a risk that they are misrepresented. While experts surely can seek to educate the public, there is no sure-shot panacea. Sparking discourse on how court reporters undertake reportage on judicial proceedings become necessary in these times of hyperpolarization where every pronouncement, comment and observation made by every judge is analysed and political and spurious considerations attached, it would be prudent to exercise discretion on how legal journalism is conducted.
*Co-Authored with Pragya Narayanan, 3rd year student B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) at NUALS , Kochi. She tweets at @/PragyaNarayanan Note from Ananth: A little bit of a technical/specific article as I came back from a two-week writing vacation. Will try and be more active here again. Thank you to Pragya for writing this article on a rather unexplored topic with me!