Oct 12, 2009

Court reporting in 140 character tweets

A new method of live court reporting is being pioneered at the Federal Court in Sydney -- by Tweeps. Journos are tweeting court news, which lawyers, judges and officials are following. Where will the courts draw the line?

Margaret Simons

Journalist, author and director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism

As you read this, a new method of court reporting is being pioneered at the Federal Court in Sydney -- by Tweeps. The lawyers at the bar table, the litigants and even some court officials are following the stream of bite-sized chunks of reportage from ZDNet’s Liam Tung and The Australian’s Andrew Colley. At times, a post can even provoke an open chuckle in court. The feed, which began last week and continues today, can be seen here. I understand that the judge in the case, Dennis Cowdroy, is well aware of the Twittering, and so far has done nothing to stop it. Indeed, it is hard to see how the court could possibly object, providing the Twitterers are fair and accurate. What is the legal difference between this and a reporter dashing in and out of court to file updates for radio or the web? Nevertheless, it underlines the key innovation that is upon professional journalists -- the fact that anyone can publish news and views to the world. If journos can do this, what is to stop the litigants or people in the public gallery from doing likewise? At the same time as the reporters are Twittering, people outside the court room are interacting with them, commenting on their posts, offering their own points of view. There is no reason why someone inside the court room couldn’t respond if they thought the reporters had got it wrong. And the whole process is visible to anyone in the court room with a mobile phone or a laptop. Federal Court spokesman Bruce Phillips this morning declined to comment on the practice. And what is the attitude of the media organisations? We can expect new and cool organisations such as  ZDNet to be up with the latest, but is The Australian comfortable with the fact that  Colley is providing more up-to-date coverage on Twitter than for the newspaper’s own platforms? This morning I sent a Twitter Direct Message to Colley, who was sitting in court Tweeting like mad at the time. He Twittered back, declining to comment on behalf of the paper, but emphasising that reporting by Twitter was not new. In a succession of messages (Twitter sets a limit of 140 characters) he said: "The only novel part is mostly a result of opportunity provided by the case. It was quite spontaneous. It wasn't really thought out. It was a suggestion from a colleague and then it just had such a great response we kept on." Just today, The Australian has a story about the attempt to develop policies on staff use of social networking tools and blogging, after a Queensland Courier Mail sub-editor lost his job over a comment on his blog. I have covered the issue of journalistic use of Twitter on my blog here and here and here. It is true that The Australian is not new to Twitter. Caroline Overington famously (in Twitter land in any case) provided coverage of the aftermath of Black Saturday’s bushfires on Twitter. Other mainstream reporters have reported via Twitter before. The case being Twittered is of great interest to new media followers, being a landmark copyright hearing brought by the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft (AFACT) against Australia’s third largest internet service provider, iiNet. Read a summary and timeline of events here. AFACT acts of behalf of a collection of movie studios and Channel Seven. They accuse iiNet of effectively authorising its users to breach copyright by turning a blind eye to the use of websites and services that provide free "pirate" content. If AFACT succeeds, other internet service providers in Australia and around the world can expect a flood of claims. Following the case blow-by-blow is therefore of considerable interest to many people and big businesses. So far as court reporting is concerned, the question would have to be -- where will the courts draw the line? If live Twittering is OK -- subject to the normal rules of contempt -- why not live streaming? It is a question considered by Stilgherrian here. And while the issues may be manageable in a civil case, what about criminal cases? Will action be taken to make sure jurors are not checking the feed on their mobile phones in court breaks? What will the limits of commentary be?

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4 thoughts on “Court reporting in 140 character tweets

  1. Tom McLoughlin

    This may well be the unofficial approach so far. And especially as long as the iphone or whatever is set to silence mode.

    However I have a vague memory of some courts and some jurisdictions where the judge has banned note taking by members of the public. Lawyers for parties are okay. And court approved press are okay – maybe.

    And so here’s the thing – the court produces transcripts and CD tapes at considerable expense for them and the buyer. At some stage they may decide their financial interest in the copyright of that over takes the public’s right to unfettered immediate access via note taking. Notice how cameras and camera crews are not allowed in the precincts of the court or the court room itself – I know I tried during the APEC free speech case late 2007 NSW Supreme Court.

    Secondly a judge in their own court has pretty much unlimited discretion how to conduct the proceedings. Obviously a the chief judge will have practice notes etc for general application, but then that brings us back to the first point about copyright.

    Having said that, final decisions are routinely web published, though not all, which is a very good thing, but often well after the drama of the decision days or weeks before.

    Greg Barnes and Murphy at Civil Liberties etc might have some good insights into this modern technology legal practice.

  2. Rory Lusher


    There is the possibility that court notes may not be protected under copyright, if the way that those notes are presented are in fact the only way you can effectively do it (see for instance Ownit Homes vs. D. & F. Mancuso Investments Pty Ltd. (1987)) I might be wrong but a simple transcript does not seem terribly original.

    Admittedly the threshold for originality can be pretty low but I don’t know if it’s that law. Like I said I could be wrong but those are my immediate thoughts.

  3. Stilgherrian

    This live-tweeting of AFACT v iiNet is indeed a fascinating development, Margaret.

    One sentence in your commentary stuck out for me, raising that old chestnut of what is a “journalist”, exactly?

    If journos can do this, what is to stop the litigants or people in the public gallery from doing likewise?

    The short answer is “nothing”.

    But if “people in the public gallery” can provide news of the courtroom trial, are they not then journalists? They’re providing news!

    They may not be “professional” journalists (either in the sense of being formally trained or qualified, or of being paid). They may not be “mainstream” journalists, or “good” or “unbiased” or “significant” or “ethical” or “members of the MEAA”.

    They may not have a very big audience either. But they might, for example, be providing tightly-targeted information to a very specific audience, such as the managers or shareholders of competing ISPs, here and internationally, who are wondering how the information revealed in the trial might affect their business’s operations and value.

    While some might bemoan the loss of jobs in the industrial-era media factories (newspapers etc), I see these developments producing what I’ve seen a few people call a Cambrian explosion of media innovation.

    A freelancer providing live coverage of significant events in a narrow field of interest with global reach could find work just as “lucrative” as doing general rounds work for a specific local outlet.

  4. Stilgherrian

    It’s interesting to note that Andrew Colley is in court today without his laptop. Has The Australian asked him not to tweet? He hasn’t said yet.

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