Communicating Courts: an Analysis of the Changing Interface Between the Courts and the Media
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This research investigates the changing relationship between the courts and the news media in Australia. While providing a broad historical context for this relationship, it focuses specifically on the past decade and the significant changes in communications practice within many Australian court jurisdictions. The study critically examines the role of public information officers (PIOs) in the Australian court system from 1993. It also investigates debates around experimentation with television cameras in Australian courts. It further critically examines other initiatives, undertaken by the courts through the PIO, including the development of court-media liaison committees, judgment summaries, websites and standardised request forms. This investigation brings together a range of perspectives about the court-media relationship. The findings are based on responses from 32 semi-structured interviews, conducted across seven jurisdictions in Australia over 28 months. Those interviewed include judges, PIOs, television reporters, news directors and newspaper reporters. The findings show overwhelming support for the role of PIO in facilitating access, improving communication, fostering a better understanding between the courts and the media and enhancing accuracy in court reportage. They indicate that those jurisdictions with PIOs in office are better at meeting the needs of the news media than the single jurisdiction that does not employ a PIO. In contrast, the issue of television camera access to courts has been marked by inconsistencies across the different groups of respondents. While the courts have generally been proactive in this area, news directors are ambivalent, even dismissive, about advancing moves. Progress has been slow, to the point of stalling in this area. This research is positioned within a field described as 'under-researched' and 'incompletely theorized'. It deals with uncharted research territory, particularly in the analysis of how the news media perceive their own role in the court-media interface. In delving into how the courts and media intersect, it forces an analysis of open justice and investigates the practice, policy, theoretical and philosophical assumptions and traditions of this relationship. Central to any relationship with the media is the source-reporter connection and this is analysed in the context of courts. It is argued that, consistent with the relatively low-level of analysis into the courts-media interface in general, sources on the court round have been inconsistent and disparate, reinforcing problems and irregularities for reporters on the round. Theories of sources as bureaucratic channels of information and primary definers of news provide a theoretical position for the emergence of the PIO. Critical elements that underpin the research are the importance of the media as presenting the courts to the wider community, through open justice, as well as the news media's role as the Fourth Estate in monitoring all aspects of society, including the judiciary and the courts. While the courts and the media must work together, they must also remain separate if the are to function effectively within a democracy. The investigation concludes that they should have 'separate but interlocking functions' in the public sphere. The research is framed around ideas of courts as part of the public sphere. It argues that developments aimed at enhancing communication between courts and the media have also improved the position of courts within that sphere. The intersections are viewed through concepts of ideal speech, communicative action and shared lifeworld. Individually and collectively, these provide a solid 'best practice' approach to how courts and the media can work together. These ideas are shown as a cycle of communication, represented as a communication model between courts, media and the public. Whilst originating from the work of Jurgen Habermas, these ideas have evolved to include a variety of perspectives and have, in this thesis, been employed to provide the theoretical framework for an analysis of the changing court-media interface.
Thesis (PhD Doctorate)
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
School of Arts, Media and Culture
Australian Court system
Court media interface