View from City Road: Heard it on the grapevine . . .

Click to follow
The Independent Online
If you really want to know what's going on in the run-up to an important fraud trial, don't expect to read it in the press. Most judges seem intent on banning all mentions in print, even of the fact that hearings are taking place at all. Unless you have a friend in the gossipy world of journalism, the Bar or the City, prepared to tell you by word of mouth, you'll never know.

There is an equally worrying trend towards imposing reporting bans on an entire trial, because of connections with other, later trials. Often the link appears tenuous.

There are perfectly respectable reasons for bans on reporting of parts of pre-trial proceedings and occasionally of related trials, when they could be prejudicial to a jury. These become more convincing the nearer the events concerned approach the date the jury is selected.

In the case of the Maxwell brothers, who have been to court recently, this is a good five months away, but nothing can be said. There have been equally interesting developments in the Brent Walker case that must go unreported, though they are widely discussed within a now quite substantial legal and journalistic elite.

With a large trial, gossip does much of the work of publication anyway. How many colleagues and friends hear second-hand tittle-tattle from the hundreds of lawyers, police and journalists involved in the preparations for a big trial? At third hand, many tens of thousands probably know the juicy bits by the time a jury is selected.

This is not an argument for endangering the impartiality of juries by reporting everything that happens before a trial, prejudicial or not. But it does suggest the bias should always be towards allowing full reporting, so the facts are straight, rather than letting news spread through a sub-culture of gossip.

On the evidence of a number of cases that have already been through the courts, the legal basis on which judges impose bans can often be unsound and poorly explained, if at all. While in theory judges' prohibitions can be challenged, in practice it is hard to overturn them.

The result is that a significant number of trials have gone unreported, apart from the bare verdict because it is hardly worth a newspaper attending when nothing can be used until months or years later. The same happens to developments of public interest in pre-trial hearings.

Some judges are bad at steering the difficult line between prejudice to a trial and the public interest in reporting court proceedings. Worse still, white-collar fraud cases appear to send them to extremes of anxiety about the risks of prejudice. Others still claim the law gives them no option but to ban reporting of pre-trial hearings. If that is true, then the law should be reformed. A more enlightened attitude by judges would also help. By the way, you'll never guess what happened in the Maxwell and Brent Walker cases the other day . . . whoops]