Crime and access to information
Catching some rest after my overnight flight, I woke up to the sound of police sirens and a constant pop-pop-popping outside the Kentish Town apartment where I'm staying. Gunfire? Nope. It's Guy Fawkes Night in the UK, marking the downfall of a plot to destroy the House of Parliament in 1605. The fireworks celebrations will last all weekend.
Anyway, I'm working to get my feet set and haven't hit the streets yet, but in chatting with reporters here at the Independent, I'm already hearing some pretty significant differences in how reporters cover crime here.
In Baltimore, and the U.S. generally, an arrest in a criminal case marks a big moment in the reporting process. Authorities have to file charging documents with the court, requiring certain evidence to be laid out. With the suspect formally identified and charged, the digging then begins on trying to find out more about the case and the suspect.
Here, it is the opposite. Once an arrest is made, there is essentially a blackout on information. Reporters are prohibited by the government from publishing information about the case, particularly anything about the defendant, out of concern that it will influence potential jurors. Doing so runs the risks of fines and contempt of court charges. If a reporter gets major information on a case, but an arrest is made while they're putting their article together, they will have to sit on that info until the case has been adjudicated.
Of course, in America, our courts will call hundreds of people if necessary to find 12 who have not heard about the case, and they are instructed by the judge not to seek out information in newspapers or on TV during the proceedings. Reporters here couldn't believe what I was telling them about our access to court records and our ability to write about a case after arrest, and leading up to and during a trial. One expressed reservations that the media accounts would indeed sway a jury unfairly.
Another big difference is that police scanners, a fixture in U.S. newsrooms, aren't a factor here. They wait to hear from police about major crimes, and alerts can sometimes take days, reporters said. And remember, because of the contempt of court issues, if they find out about a crime after an arrest is made, they're essentially powerless to do any meaningful reporting because of the jury bias issues. I'm curious whether I'll be held to that standard as a visiting journalist attending courts next week, and I have no idea how I would get to a crime scene without the ridealongs I have scheduled in the coming days.