Two legal correspondents retire

But others are filling the gap

The lawyer and blogger David Allen Green published a well-timed post yesterday. Headlined The last of the legal correspondents and the true crisis in the public understanding of law, it reported the retirements of both Owen Bowcott and Clive Coleman at the end of last week.

As far as I know, the Guardian is not replacing Bowcott and BBC News is not replacing Coleman. I believe that both legal correspondents were offered redundancy by employers who have been under pressure to reduce staff numbers.

I mentioned their retirements in passing last month and had been thinking of making some broader observations until Green — a good friend — beat me to it. But perhaps it’s worth adding my own perspective, if only from a personal point of view: I was the BBC’s legal correspondent from 1985 to 2000 and I wrote a weekly column for the Guardian website from 2010 to 2016.

In his Law and Policy blog, Green makes four shrewdly-observed points:

  • Apart from specialist subscription-only services, there are just two London-based international news organisations that still employ full-time legal correspondents. Both The Times and the Financial Times are behind paywalls but, says Green, “if you want good specialised journalism in this internet age you do have to pay for it”.

  • It has never been easier for non-lawyers to read primary sources of information, such as statutes and judgments. But Green says this is of only theoretical value unless you can find your way around legal documents.

  • Journalists can never be fully replaced by legal bloggers and tweeters — of which he and Secret Barrister are the doyens, with 230,000 and 425,000 Twitter followers respectively. That, suggests Green, is because non-journalists are not invited to Whitehall press briefings and because they don’t have contacts among judges and practitioners.

  • Finally, he adds, “the crisis is not that we are at the end of specialised reporting of legal news… The crisis in the public understanding of law is that most of the public do not want to understand law.”

Let me take those points in order. First: paying for journalism.

All of Green’s posts can be read without charge. But he invites a donation of £1. Secret Barrister does not take payments but promotes (excellent) books. Adam Wagner, a barrister who tweets a running commentary on the coronavirus regulations, has just persuaded 600 of his 80,000 followers to show their gratitude by donating £15,000 to the Law Centres Network. Although most of the pieces on my own blog — like this one — are free to read, people who take out a paid subscription (£4.99 a month or £50 a year) receive additional posts — like one last week on self-driving cars — and can now leave comments on all published pieces.

And then there’s the BBC. You don’t have to pay a licence fee to read legal coverage on the BBC website or to listen to Law in Action, the Radio 4 programme I launched in 1984 and have presented since 2010. You don’t need a licence to listen to the punditry I offer in normal times on Radio Scotland, Radio Wales and Radio Ulster —or on commercial television networks. Indeed, you don’t have to pay for specialist journalism at all. But you really ought to.

Next, access to primary sources online. I’m not quite as pessimistic as Green is. Although it’s always risky to take legal action without proper advice, a non-lawyer should be able to read and understand the broad outlines of a modern act of parliament or a recently decided case. Many law firms and barristers’ chambers offer specialist commentaries. From time to time, I provide links to judges’ sentencing remarks. Readers have no difficulty in understanding them but they are surprised to find that many of the judge’s remarks are regarded by journalists as too explicit or too disturbing to report.

It is true that legal journalists pick up stories from their contacts — although this works much better face-to-face and it has been much harder for us to see our contacts since the first lockdown in March. But Whitehall briefings are a thing of the past: when the Ministry of Justice moved into its current building, staff found a room that had been specially equipped for broadcast news conferences. It must be more than a decade since it was last used for that purpose by a lord chancellor.

Where I do think we have the edge over bloggers is in reporting court hearings and judgments. As journalists, we have been trained to explain complex legal issues in plain English. It’s 10 years since legal journalists were first trusted to tweet in court. Nick Wallis, a freelance television reporter, has covered the Post Office Horizon scandal on his blog and by live-tweeting court hearings. I plan to live-tweet the hearing this morning at which a district judge will rule on a request from the United States for the extradition of Julian Assange.

Finally, says Green, “a significant portion of the public do not want to understand the law or care about how the law is misused or abused”. I can understand why he feels like that but I do hope it’s not true. Certainly, there is now less coverage of serious topics in the newspapers. Even before Covid, people were not buying daily papers in the numbers they did when reading was the only available distraction from the daily commute.

But the response to my work — across all platforms — convinces me that there are still plenty of non-lawyers who want to understand legal developments. You don’t have to be a lawyer to know that some people in government are trying to exploit the law, break constitutional conventions or restrict our liberties. And so long as people want to know how the law works, there will be academics, practitioners, bloggers and journalists trying to explain it to them.

Your support will be appreciated.

Update 0950: Dominic Casciani has just announced on Twitter that he is now the BBC’s Home and Legal Correspondent:

Further update 4 January: I have made it clear that I am not including specialist subscription-only services in my reference to news organisations that employ legal correspondents.