Coping with court coverage complaints

There’s no doubt about the sort of story that provokes the most complaints.

Court coverage is where human frailty meets reputational damage meets conflicting versions of events.

It makes phones ring and emails ping.

Most of the time, we’ll be on entirely safe ground and be able to deal with challenges and complaints with a clear conscience and complete confidence.

But as more and more coverage appears online, the complications have increased.

Last week, a newsroom I was in received an email from a landscape gardener struggling to find work after appearing in court charged with assault.

He was acquitted.

But the story of the case in which it was claimed he hit someone in the street is there online for all to see.

He says his reputation has been damaged – even though the story is clear that he was found not guilty.

There’s plainly no smoke without fire in the world of landscape gardening.

I can see the poor man’s point.

But our story is part of a record of life, holding up a mirror to society, warts and all.

And it was one story.

The situation would be less easy to defend if there had been several reports over the life of a lengthy trial, with only one nailing the man’s innocence in the eyes of the law.

And then there’s the tricky subject of spent convictions.

Last year, the Government reduced the length of time many convictions stay on offenders’ records in an attempt to make it easier for people to rebuild their lives.

It’s a noble aspiration that most of us would support.

My instinct has always been that once a conviction has run out, we should take a story down.

But there’s a debate to be had there, too.

Last year, newspaper group Newsquest won a battle over its refusal to remove a report of a fraud conviction from one of its sites.

The Government’s changes and Newsquest’s Information Commissioner’s Office victory came in the same year that the phrase right to be forgotten entered the English language.

As an industry, we will need to establish a party line on dealing with the growing assertiveness of those who pass through the court system.

One that balances our responsibility to be fair and sensitive with our role as the provider of the unvarnished truth, free from the shifting sands of self-censorship.

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