Supreme court judge criticises media

 

SUPREME COURT judge Mr Justice Adrian Hardiman has sharply criticised the media for its "inadequate and uninformative" coverage of the courts.

Speaking at the Law Society annual Justice Media Awards, he accused the media of rushing to comment on judges' rulings without properly examining or understanding them.

In addition, he said reporting of individual cases was often uninformative or confusing. While one could generally learn the result of a case from a media report, he said there was rarely a sense of the process which led to the result.

"Indeed, even the result and its significance is often distorted as the reporter or some editor focuses on some incidental but picturesque detail, or on the need for a headline."

Mr Justice Hardiman said judges in the superior courts spent many hours writing these judgments. While he said he had once believed they were written for the public so they, informed by the media, could see the system of administration of justice was a "logical, rigorous, developing and humane one", he felt this was no longer the case.

"I have to confess my great disappointment that this can no longer be said because many organs of the media, including some of the most important, are unable or unwilling to engage in the process at all."

He said he looked with "envy" at the highly skilled press corps attached to the US Supreme Court, who were generally qualified and often experienced lawyers.

"In the same way, science is covered by an academic scientist and sports, not excluding dog racing and computer games, by highly competent people," Mr Justice Hardiman said.

"It is no exaggeration to say that legal reporting in Ireland has yet to find its Des Cahill or Joshua Rosenberg. One is not entitled to require media coverage, but if it occurs, it should surely be of reasonable standard."

He also said members of the media often left court early, before proceedings were completed, leading to inaccurate or incomplete coverage.

Mr Justice Hardiman also used the lyrics of a song from the musical Oklahoma! - "the farmer and the cowman [sic] should be friends" - to explain the relationship between the legal profession and journalists.

In this context, he referred on several occasions to female legal affairs journalists as "cowgirls", while taking them to task for what he said was their inaccurate coverage of cases or judgments.

He also referred to the coverage of a Supreme Court decision several years ago which ruled in favour of a defendant in a drunken driving case.

While the ruling of the court made it clear that the case did not have implications for hundreds of other drink-driving cases, Mr Justice Hardiman said the presenter of a current affairs radio show went on to state that all these cases might now fail.

The Supreme Court judge said it was clear that neither the interviewer, the producer nor any of the researchers had read the judgments in the case.

He also emphasised the close links between the legal profession and journalism, including journalists who went on to have "distinguished legal careers".

"One thinks of the former Chief Justice Ó Dálaigh, of my great and good friend Hugh O'Flaherty and, in more recent times, of Michael O'Higgins SC, who I am sure many of you knew in his earlier incarnation as a journalist," he said.

"One would think that this long connection would lead to a spirit of amity and co-operation. But I do not think that is so."

Mr Justice Hardiman made the remarks at the awards last weekend. Following a query from The Irish Timeson Sunday, he provided a script of his comments yesterday afternoon.

Given the very mixed reaction to the speech by an audience which included dozens of members of the media, the president of the Law Society Ken Murphy offered a "right of reply" to the journalists present.

Dearbhaill McDonald, legal affairs editor of the Irish Independent, said the media did a very good job of reporting court cases in difficult and pressurised circumstances.

However, she said Mr Justice Hardiman had ignored the very good work done by the media in informing the public, despite judges' use of arcane and often impenetrable language.

She said members of the judiciary could do much more to make their rulings more accessible and comprehensible to members of the public.