herald

Wednesday 16 October 2019

Abigail Rieley: Why do the authorities care more about the privacy of criminals than the public's right to know?

PUBLIC INTEREST: The poor facilities provided for the media at the new criminal courts building are stopping journalists doing their jobs

The Eamonn Lillis case is the first high-profile trial to take place in the new Criminal Courts of Justice complex on Parkgate Street. It's the first time the new courts have dealt with the crush of journalists that attend these kinds of trials and the press are not happy.

The €140m complex is the largest major court development since the Four Courts were built in the 18th Century, 23,000 square feet housing 22 courts and 450 rooms.

It's the new home for all criminal legal matters in Dublin -- the Central, Circuit, District and Special criminal courts will all live here from now on, leaving the Four Courts the preserve of civil matters.

It's an impressive building -- large, airy and imposing. There are state-of-the-art jury facilities, cells and victim support quarters. There have been improvements to security and the courts have high tech facilities that will mean video and multimedia evidence can be handled with ease. But, for the media, the new facilities leave a lot to be desired.

Seating has always been a problem for the media in Irish courts. Unlike other countries, where press benches are the norm, here the media have to fight for seating and in the Four Courts frequently ended up sitting next to the accused facing the jury.

We had been promised that all this would change with the new courts, that press facilities would be state-of-the-art but once you get down to it, it's just more of the same.

Terrible

The new courts do have a bench with a ledge to rest notebooks and laptops behind the padded seats where the barristers sit, but it's not automatically reserved for the media. If someone else decides to sit there, there's not much your average reporter can do to make them move except ask nicely, a tactic that has had mixed results in the past.

Mobile phone reception is terrible, and while the Vodafone signal has been boosted since the problem became known, the other networks still struggle. Reception is even worse in the windowless media rooms, the two bunkers next to the toilets on the ground floor.

They provide space for 25 journalists. There is a core media pack of around 20 journalists and photographers who are based full time in the criminal courts. During a high profile trial, like Eamonn Lillis' this number can, at the very least, double.

When the courts were opened for a test run in November of last year, one veteran hack commented that facilities had been better in the 1950s when there was a kettle and an open fire.

While other offices in the building are equipped with sinks and ample spaces for kettles, the media rooms boast no such creature comforts.

The media facilities have the feeling of a being a grudging after-thought, a sop to a group of pests who are barely tolerated at the best of times. This goes to the heart of the Courts Services' attitude towards the press.

The idea that the media are public representatives seems to be a foreign concept. Justice has to be carried out in public, as laid down in Article 34.1 of the Constitution and it's through journalists that this happens in the main.

When trials take place "in camera", without the general public, the media are the only people who get the story out. It is photographs and television pictures that give most people their first and only glimpse of some of the most dangerous criminals in the country.

But now even those pictures will become a thing of the past. Convicted criminals will be whisked in complete privacy from court to jail: they'll never have to face a photographer or tv camera.

And more significantly, the public will never get to see a picture of them being led away.

Instead of accepting the media as part of the process and making provisions accordingly, Irish courts treat them with distrust. We are seen as interlopers and vultures; there just to leer over the lurid details of the latest high-profile trial..

But it's not all death and sex. Court stories also shine a light on injustices; show the failings of the State -- and the rest.

Justice might be blind but it must be seen to be done.

The media are a part of that process and we need to have the facilities to do our jobs.

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