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Archive for August, 2011

The State of the Union – Scotland and England Divided

The argument for Scottish independence heats up on both sides.

A sign of unity or division?

The Scots remember every victory and defeat against the English. We mark them on the bed-posts, with the score filled out in brackets. Our cousins south of the border do no such thing. While the Scots count small victories and nurse a grudging resentment to the Auld Enemy, the English actually take very little interest in Scotland, until recently. I think in essence this highlights a very great difference between the two factions debating over independence at the present.

And this is why I was deeply concerned to read all the Scotland bashing in the news yesterday. The Daily Mail front page headline: A Kingdom Deeply Divided, brought home the growing resentment for Scotland simmering south of the border. Because the formula used to divide tax between the home nations is over 30 years old, each individual in Scotland gets just over £10,000 spent on them in tax-payers funding, compared to about £8,500 in England, a difference highlighted many times as 15 per cent.

Ross Clark in particular alleges that Alex Salmond, in accepting of these extra funds and charging English students more than Scottish students, is subtly attempting to make England grant Scotland their independence and do his dirty work for him. The Scots are widely dubious about a referendum and rightly so.

We are currently still in a recession, and every second day one newspaper or another has some economist saying we could be heading for a double-dip. If this is the case then this might be the worst time to secede from the Union. Even Salmond, in his heart of hearts, knows this. But to accuse him of stirring up trouble seems a bit unfair. If the Barnett Formula, drawn up in 1978 gives Scotland ten per cent of the nation’s tax based on the fact that we had ten per cent of the population back then and this deficit is because we now have only eight per cent of the population then who wouldn’t take advantage of it? Are you telling me Mr Clark, in your infinite wisdom that if the tables were turned and since 1978 Scotland had grown to encompass 12 per cent of the UK’s population so that everyone in England got more tax money spent on them you wouldn’t take it? That Mr Cameron wouldn’t use that to make university cheaper for the English? Don’t make me laugh.

Of course it’s an unfair situation, and it needs rectified. But for my knowledge Joel Barnett was English. This is not a case of the Scots stealing money from the English, it is a case of an antiquated law not being over-turned sooner.

But here’s the nub of the matter for me. While I grew up in Scotland and was vaguely aware of the news and current affairs and occasionally read a newspaper, I was bombarded with figures indicating the Scots have the highest levels of obesity, binge drinking and teenage pregnancy in the UK.

Scotland is a small country with a whole load of social problems, and over and above the one’s mentioned we can add sectarianism and domestic abuse to the list (I think I recall hearing Glasgow had not only the worst numbers of domestic abuse by men against woman, but also of woman against men too). And what is tax funding funding meant to do except help those in need? The rich give more because they have it to help those in need, and in Scotland we have the figures to justifiably say: “We are in desperate need!”

Labour peer, Ruth Lister, wrote a fantastic piece in Monday’s Guardian about how the connotation of welfare denotes a “narrow, rather miserable, form of social assistance for people in poverty.” She argues that the old term, social security, (which was replaced with ‘welfare’ by New Labour), “represents an end to which society aspires. It expresses the desire to ensure genuine security for all through social means.” And by using ‘welfare’ rather than ‘social security’ we have got to the point where anyone on benefits is seen as a scrounger and a lay-about. And it seems many in England are seeing Scotland in this way.

Social security would instead provide us with a language of understanding, where we realise that although we are being taxed, this because, even if we don’t earn a lot, we are secure, and what we give is used to provide security for others.

I believe that Scotland needs a lot of social security and this is why we must remain part of the Union. I don’t deny that the English do too, but I must add that bashing Scotland for using money that we were given by Westminster to support our people is redundant and unfair and all you English out there who complain the most would be the first to use that money for your own people. I call for the Barnett Formula to be recalculated, but I also call for a degree of understanding between our two nations.

Scotland has great assets. We have great sportsmen in tennis, golf, curling, but also football and rugby. We have a long list of inventors, poets, writers and academics. We have North Sea Oil, which although undoubtedly still rising in profitability by 3.7 per cent to £15.9bn over the year 2009/10, wont last forever. But at present I believe that it still contributes a nice lump sum to Westminster every year.

But we also have, like the rest of the UK, a deep divide between rich and poor, and social problems, which although can’t totally be solved by funding, can at least be alleviated to some extent.

And, I say to all the English all over the country, who continuous quote that London pays two-thirds of the UK’s tax and so basically pays for Scotland, it doesn’t matter, because unless you live in London on a six or seven figure salary (in which case say it to your hearts content), London is paying your taxes too. London is like California, which is one of top ten largest economies in the world on it’s own. If both declared independence on there own it would destroy the Unions on both sides of the pond.

I freely admit that the Scots need the English, but maybe it would be more true to say the Scots need London. But don’t call the kettle black, because the rest of England and Wales needs London too. The rest of our taxes compared to the high-flyers in London are but a drop in the ocean.

We are a Union, and as such we rise and fall together. If we are sectarian and petty with each other we will fall. If we argue and bicker like little children we will fall out. If we actually talk like adults we stand a chance of creating a Great Britain which actually lives up to it’s name.

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An opportunity to vent – Littering, a law unto itself

August 30, 2011 1 comment

I am not one to rant… Actually I am, so I must clarify. I am not one to rant without reason. The dictionary definition of ranting is: To speak or write in an angry manner.1 This gives it some very unpleasant overtones for those of us who wish to write or speak angrily, the accusation of raving, which is ‘to speak or write with wild enthusiasm’.

So instead of raving, or ranting like a lunatic, I am going to vent, as in ‘vent ones frustrations’. So I’m merely providing an outlet for my frustrations. But I hope that the two topics I’ve picked can be empathised with by many who read this and are maybe causes for other people to rant and rave themselves.

Our streets are littered with horse dung and cigarette ends.
Horse dung and cigarette ends litter our streets

The first thing that has really been grinding my gears is police horses, for two very distinct reasons. The first is the fact that in a technologically advanced society, where the police and armed forces have access bikes, motorbikes, cars, vans, jeeps and even tanks, what use is a horse in modern law enforcement? Of course a horse is very large and imposing, but surely putting the life of another living thing in the danger zone is totally unnecessary nowadays.

Anyway, the real problem I have with police horses is the fact that they crap everywhere. Walking to meet a friend for lunch in Bristol I had to avoid two extremely large and still steaming piles of horse-shit! If I had stood in this excrement I would have not been very popular at my final destination, but this is beside the point.

My main problem is that while civilians can receive anything from a £40 to a £1,000 fine for leaving dog-mess behind, why can’t the police be fined for leaving piles of crap that would put ten dogs to shame? An innocent, but admittedly lazy dog-owner can be fined a months wages for forgetting to scoop their dog’s poop, but a police officer on a horse can let the horse shit where it likes: on pavements, roads, cycle paths even! And we should all have a small place in our hearts for the poor cyclist who streaks through horse dung accidentally I tell you now.

It is simply a case of a rule for them and another rule for us – which in my opinion should be abolished right this instant. It may hold up a police patrol, but if they are so worried about our streets being covered in shit that they will fine civilians for a a mug of poo, then they should have to dismount and scoop up what seems to be a pot of crap of our roads. Otherwise they should give themselves a fine somewhere between £1,000 and £5,000 for ‘befouling our streets’. And they are our streets, we pay tax and road maintenance, so befouling the streets is a crime against society.

So, officers, either clean up your animals crap – or stop using horses. One rule for you and another for the rest of us makes a mockery of justice, and as Martin Luther King Jr. famously quoted 1963 : ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ Not to mention the frustration of cleaning one’s shoes in the name of justice.

So, enough about this crap (sorry about the pun). The other topic I wish to vent my spleen about is cigarette butts. As a smoker I always, and very conscientiously in my very own opinion, try and pop my butt in an ash-tray or the bins provided. But this is a drop in the ocean, with thousands of fag butts littering our streets, next to little piles of dog-doo and considerably larger piles of horse-dung.

Nowadays, every city has mandatory fines for smokers who drop their butts, as they should. But in some cities (are you listening Edinburgh), they have specific Litter Wardens that patrol the streets and can dish out instant fines for those dropping litter. Of this I approve, anyone, civilian or otherwise should be meted out with a considerable fine for befouling the streets, in context with their mess. How about £1 per fag end, £50 per dog-crap and £100 per horse pat?

Anyway I digress. My main beef against the litter wardens is that they can spend all day without tolling out a single fine. A new level of law-enforcement encourages criminals (used loosely of course) to take their law-breaking to a new level. So if you’re thinking of throwing your fag butt away just take a quick look to see if there’s any litter wardens about.

This means that in some cities in the UK, there are public sector staff getting paid to do absolutely nothing (‘Duh,’ you might say, but I’m not talking about bureaucratic pen-pushers today, just litter wardens). Why not have litter wardens, or police officers on litter duty actively pick up rubbish and fag butts as they go, so that even if they spend a day without handing out a fine ,they can at least earn their respective wages by cleaning our streets up?

In fact, how about scrap litter wardens and mounted police patrols completely. Instead our councils could invest in more bins and ash-trays so that you’re never out of reach of somewhere to throw your rubbish, and maybe instead of investing in mounted police units we should buy them bicycles and save the money on fodder – ‘nough said I think.

1According to the Free Dictionary online: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/rant

Categories: Comment, Rants Tags: ,

A World Gone Mad: Riots Without Reason? Riots Have Causes And We Must Address These To Avert Future Damage.

August 12, 2011 4 comments
Riots in Bristol as blazes appear across the city

A burning bin in Stokes Croft, Bristol, set alight by rioters on Monday night.

Is the age of peaceful protest dead? I am of the opinion that it probably is. Hundreds of thousands marched to protest Blair’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003; over 50,000 students, lecturers and university staff marched last November in London to protest the tripling of tuition fees and the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA); on the 30th June this year, the Unions, including the NUT, UHC, UNISON, and RMT all marched in cities throughout the UK to peacefully protest about the cuts being made in their sectors. And what was the outcome of all these marches? No change in policy.

I am not one to condone violence of any kind, nor arson, nor brutality, but maybe these youngsters, branded as ‘dissidents’, ‘rioters’, ‘hoodlums’ or (in the Sun, ‘morons‘), have a point? If peaceful protests haven’t change the mind of our Government, then what form of protest is left to the public?

I reiterate that I do not condone the actions of the minority of vandals throughout our country that have destroyed the property, lives and cities of people for the last four days. But, when you realise that the kids who’s face’s have graced the Red Tops over the last few days have no union, no MP, no voice, it makes me wonder how else could they get their voices heard?

It all reminds sinisterly reminds of a poem, you’ll all know it:

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me

It’s by Martin Niemöller and is meant to define the sentiments of the intellectuals in Germany during the rise of the Nazi party. In the present context, I feel it could more correctly by read as:

First they came for the students,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a student..

Then they came for the pensioners,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a pensioner.

Then they came for the unemployed,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t unemployed.

Then they came for the youth,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t young.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

What we have seen is the systematic breaking down of our society by a Government that clearly has no idea of what is going on on streets all over the UK. First education, then Healthcare, then care workers, now the youth who are being demonified by our Government in what can only be seen as an attempt to ignore the mood of the people and plough on with there policies regardless of who is being affected. Our youth are fighting back, like students, like the unions, but instead of support, they are being condemned.

It was exactly the same with poor Charlie Gilmour and Edward Woollard, two young protesters who got carried away. Both have received custodial sentences, Gilmour 16 months and Woollard 32 months and it is apparent that in both cases the sentencing was pushed through by judges trying to appear strong in the face of a media and political storm of outrage demanding harsh punishment for the perpetrators of violence. But in this storm, one thing was forgotten, what it was that had pushed two middle class boys to commit acts of recklessness during peaceful protests. The answer is somewhere in the political mood of this country, and as pointed out by Matthew Norman in the Independent i Paper, it isn’t “criminality pure and simple” as Cameron claims. It is the complex mixture of a disenfranchised youth, a public sucked into the dream of consumerism based on adverts and political ideology, and a Government which is out of touch. As Norman observed, “The PM looks like a patrician one-nation Tory who has slipped through a tear in space-time, and emerged blinking and bamboozled from his comfy berth in the Fifties.’”

Harriet Harman, Deputy Labour Leader, has highlighted some the problems. The trebling of tuition fees, the cutting of the EMA, the rising of youth unemployment and closing of the Job Centres will all have contributed to a a feeling of social alienation, unhappiness and finally towards the riots. In her debate on Newsnight with Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, Harman stated:

“There is a sense that young people think they’re not being listened to. That is not to justify violence, but when you’ve got the trebling of tuition fees, when you’ve got the EMA taken away, when you’ve got jobs being cut and youth unemployment rising and you’re shutting the job centre, you should think again about that.”

Police Riot Squads are deployed to control the looting and violence.

Riot squads are deployed by police to control looting and vandalism in Bristol.

The psychology of the riots is summed up very nicely by Ian Leslie, author of ‘Born Liars’ in his blog. Noting that rioting is “imitative behaviour compressed and sped up,” Leslie believes that social media and 24 hour news allows the “madness of a febrile crowd to spread faster and further and with more fluidity than ever before.” So we have a generation of kids, with broken links to their local community, but strong links with like-minded individuals through Twitter, Facebook and other media, who can swap information almost instantly. This means, that when one or two started rioting and news spread through this online community, the rest would have felt justified to imitate the behaviour of their peers.

This is a generation with little to no respect for police, teachers and our Government, but it is a disrespect they all share, and could, theoretically, be said to be a reason to respect each other. Shared opinions can very easily lead to shared action. Hence riots have spread from the Borourghs of London to cities throughout the UK.

To say the riots were started by social media is probably incorrect. They were organised through social media, they were started through mutual disrespect and social injustice. What emphasises their lack of unity and political polarity is the fact that they attacks lack any focus, only a need to lash out.

To fight the Government or police can inspire sympathy in those who have been on the wrong end of their policies or activities, to attack a corporation shows they have a common goal, consumer capitalism. To take out your anger on everyday people and their livelihoods inspires outrage, and hence the current backlash again ‘scum’, ‘dissidents’ and ‘terrorists’.

There is the additional fact, that these are kids, which over the last few years have seen the moral breakdown of our media, banks and politicians. First we had the expenses scandal, with MPs taking advantage of the public purse for their own ends. Then the banking crisis, which would have been generally accepted as a mistake, if the top bankers weren’t still taking six-figure bonuses at a time when austerity sweeps the nation. And most recently there has been the phone-hacking expose. What this highlighted was that while everyday people’s phones were being hacked for snippets of information, the top journos, politicos and celebrities were sitting comfortably at a party in Chipping Norton deciding where to invest their capital.

And, what has been made clear by the media coverage, is that they all felt totally justified doing what they were doing, like it was owed to them – so why shouldn’t a generation of kids who have watched these kinds of crimes not feel justified to take their slice of pie, however violent it is? If the bankers can find a way to take their tax back, why shouldn’t (in their opinion) should these looters? I am not justifying them, but can no one see how they felt justified?

We need to think about this outrage before it gets out of hand. Zoe Williams in the Guardian today suggests that the impetus behind the riots could come from a social class or group that lives in the consumer capitalist world of adverts celebrity gossip and glorified lifestyles, which, hint clever advertisements, everyone must have, and, hints our Government and businesses and banks, everyone can have.

Hoody sets fire to a bin during riots in Bristol

A hoody begins a blaze in a wheely bin during riots on Monday night in Bristol

But can we all have it all? The answer to that is probably not. Especially, as Harman emphasises, with tripled tuition fees, no EMA and no jobs for young people. This, then will lead to a disenfranchised group of youngsters who feel they have no hope of getting either a degree, or a job, and therefore no hope in hell of reaching the heights of comfortable living that adverts and society accepts as the norm. Therefore, when they see our ruling elite taking what they want, they attack back in retribution. It’s not big, it’s not clever, but I don’t think any of us can, deep down, say it’s unexpected.

Everyone likes to live in a cosy bubble and indulge the myth: If I work hard, get my degree, get a job, I can buy my house, raise a family, have regular holidays, and put away a pension. But in living that myth, and striking out at anyone who harms the myth, we end up with a disillusioned minority who are under-represented. Like Woollard, or Gilmour, the public outrage from the myth-buyers will put these people in jail and allow us to go back to the bubble. But it doesn’t address why these people aren’t either in the bubble or accept the bubble themselves. We could just bang all the arrested rioters in jail and carry on with our lives, but does this change anything? Will this stop more future riots? I think the answer is no.

Our Government loves the myth. It means when people with actual grievances against their policies stand up to be counted they can shrug them off as a minority, while the rest of us bury our heads in the sand and it isn’t our job that is lost, or our pensions which disappear. But one day it will be. This is why the teachers are marching, the students are marching, the Unions are marching. But unless we left our heads up and accept that everyone deserves a place in this country there will always be inequality, always be injustice, and always be riots because the quite majority, pursuing it’s own agenda, will leave a trail of mess that someone has to pick up. It might not be our jobs now, or our pensions, but it is our country. We are all going to suffer at the hands of these austerity cuts, politicians and bankers excepted, but why can’t we stand with the protesters? If we all stood together, youths, students, unions and everyone else, then no one would have to riot. But the majority of people in this country want to lie back and take the cuts and hope it won’t affect them. This is why when people complain there is such outrage – not because anyone disagrees with them – but because they worry the protests will make their lives worse.

So instead of condemning the young for feeling unrepresented and alienated, lets sort out our system. Yes, lets punish the perpetrators of injustice, but lets not get back in the bubble, but address what has caused these riots. Let us build something better and use this as an opportunity for Britain to say no the destruction of our education system, our health service, our unemployment services. Let us say no to a country where we are all so scared for our jobs that we don’t give the young any hope of getting a job themselves. Let us say ‘no,’ to social inequalities and ‘yes,’ to putting this country back together.

Harmann calls on the Government to “be on the side of opportunities for young people, and jobs for young people.” Let’s all be on the side of young people. Let’s punish the perpetrators of these riots, but not without forethought, and never forgetting that there are complex reasons for these kind of outbreaks that a quick prosecution can’t brush under the dirty carpet.

I would like to thank Doulas Hook for his wonderful images taken from Monday nights riots and for giving me permission to use them in this piece. More of Douglas’ work can be found on his blog at: http://hookphoto.blogspot.com/

My first week as a journalist – work experience day 2 – Vox Pop

My second day at the South Wales Argus proved to be an exhausting experience. But becoming a journalist has always been a dream of mine, and now that I am getting closer, it will take a lot more than exhaustion to stop me…

The 6am starts really don’t help much, catching two trains to Newport, which takes an hour and a half, then a brisk 30 minute walk from the train station to their offices. The morning heat this week has been extraordinary, and I need a quick fag break before I go to cool off, even at 8:30 in the morning. This is the one thing I’m really not used to, a shirt and tie everyday. When you sweat a little in a shirt it really shows, and suit trousers stick to your legs – maybe a bus would be more convenient, but I would arrive 40 minutes early, and, as I’m about to embark upon my NCTJ (National Certificate of Trained Journalism) next month I need to save my pennies.

The morning started like it always does, reading yesterdays paper, then going over today’s broadsheets to see what’s been happening. The office starts to buzz as reporters get calls and emails detailing the comings-and-goings of the day, but because I’m only work experience and there’s no internet at my computers, I have to wait to be told my task.

The no internet really irritates me. I can’t check the news online, I can’t tweet, and I can’t do very much research when it comes to writing my pieces. There is, admittedly, one computer with full access (the rest have ethernet), but it is usually busy. You’d think, with the ‘Arab Spring’ being orchestrated via Twitter, and the amount of trouble some people have been in for internet libel, that it would be readily available in a news office? Personally, I find a lot of my comment articles from Twitter posts, people recommending me pieces that are well written or thought-provoking, so being cut off is a little unsettling, and makes life very quiet.

After moving from the papers to my textbook, trying to fit in a bit of early reading about current affairs for my looming course, I am approached with my task for the day – to go out and do a vox pop. This, I learned (uninitiated as I am), is when you go out into the local streets and pick people’s brains for short interviews, like what do you think about x? Why? Etc. My topic was to find out about people’s favourite superheroes as part of a piece concerning the recent avalanche of superhero movies like the Mighty Thor, Green Lantern and Captain America.

Walking into town and starting to try and get people to answer I realised this wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought. I have been charity fundraising for a year over the phone now, and, because I am quite successful at it, I thought getting people to answer a few questions would be a doddle. “I’ll back in an hour or two,” I confidently declared as I left, but how wrong I was…

Firstly, due to my subject matter, people of the older orientation simply weren’t interested. Every time I eventually got one to stop and agree to give me a minute for the Argus, as soon as I asked who’s your favourite superhero, they said something like, “I don’t know these things any more love,” or “Not interested son.” I very quickly understood that, predominately, my audience was male, 18-30. But, because I was new, I really wanted to get a good variety of demographics into my interviews. I managed to get a few girls and their boyfriends to answer the questions and was growing in confidence until the second problem arose: no one wanted their photo taken!

Aaaargh! I had been told that we needed ten interviews, all with names, ages and an image. But this was tricky, because some people didn’t want to give their full name (“call me Mr Smith”), but mostly they refused to be photographed. And, obviously of course, due to my subject matter, you could rarely appeal to anyone’s vanity (“do you want your photo in the paper”) because if they were girls they didn’t know any superheroes.

The last problem I had, with the public at least, was when I found a true virtuoso of comics. When I thought I’d hit the jackpot, kicked off a wee rapport, as soon as I asked, “So, who’s your favourite superhero then?” I got either consternation of indignation from them. “I couldn’t possibly choose!” or, “They’re all great, aren’t they?” with that challenging question thrown in at the end.

After hree hours of this, my final, and most painful problem kicked in – my smart shoes are old and decrepit. Not only were my legs hurting because I don’t usually spend so long in one go on my feet (remember to include my half hour walk from the station to work, then back again), but I was developing some fantastic blisters on every inch of my feet.

Limping on, and after four hours, with only eight out of the ten interviews and photos I needed, I retreated back to the office to write up my findings. Another half hour back down the road…

I’ve got to say that they seemed very happy with my work, which cheered me up a little, after I sat down of course. I wrote up the short interviews in 15 or 20 minutes (most of the answers to ‘why are they your favourite hero?’ were, “Because they’re cool, aren’t they…”), and was let off early at 4:15. Luckily, because I knew I would have a bit, but not a lot, of walking to do, I had a spare set of shoes in my bag – which I’d left in the office. This made the walk home more bearable on my feet, but the acid was flowing through my legs and getting on the train and sitting down was oh so pleasurable. Not as pleasurable as finally getting home and into a nice warm bath though.

All things considered, I think I was humbled today. I thought a vox pop would be easy, I was wrong. I thought my shoes would hold up, but I was mistaken. Both of these lessons have been taken to heart, and my one biggest resolution at the moment is, at the first available time, to buy some new shoes if work experience and smart wear are going to become a larger part of my life.

Categories: Comment, Personal, Rants Tags: , ,

My first week as a journalist – work experience day 1 – Court

It was with mixed emotions that I began my first week of work experience at a newspaper. Those who have read my blog a little will know that I have occasionally written for local websites and magazines, but a regional newspaper was a massive step up for me, so naturally I was very excited. This excitement I have to admit was tainted slightly by the fact I had to get up at 6am on a Monday morning, something totally unheard of of for me unless I’ve been going on holiday. The reason for this is that for my first experience of newspaper journalism I had to travel to Newport, South Wales, for a week at the South Wales Argus, the first newspaper which had work experience slots within an hours travel from Bristol.

After the journey however, I now know that although it only takes 40 minutes by train from Bristol Temple Meads station, my total daily commute would be a lot longer. When you include getting to Temple Meads from Montpelier, then waiting for my connection and finally the walk from the station to the newsroom, the journey time was approximately two hours from leaving my front door! But for a taste of professional journalism I was willing to make the sacrifice.

On getting there, signing in, being allocated a desk etc. etc. I was told that I would be accompanying Chris to court for a series of verdicts that were due out that day, one in a very big case involving the fraud of an eighty-year-old lady of over £50,000! So here it was, an hour in and I was already on my way to court.

I have been warned about the ambivalence of court reporting before and knew that it wasn’t all going to be fun and games. Although some cases are bound to be very interesting, informing an observer about the various felonies these people have committed, there are also long stretches of sentencing, barristers droning on in legelspeak, feedback from the jury, and all the tiny minutiae of courtroom etiquette that have to be adhered to that are not generally shown in films or on TV.

The first of my illusions to be shattered was that court is a well-ordered place. The judge, Stephen Hopkins QC, for the main trial, The Courtney Case as the Argus were reporting it, was over half an hour late, because, and I quote, “no one had told him he was expected in court this morning at 10am!” So it was late starting to begin with, but we were optimistic for a verdict today because the jury had been out since Friday.

Proceedings were further delayed however, when the judge admitted that one of the case he was meant to be overseeing had been transferred to Cardiff without him knowing, and the one he was expected to be doing couldn’t move forward because he hadn’t received the relevant paperwork! This resulted in four child witnesses (under 16s) having to be sent home for the day. At a time when the government is going on about cutting budgets, maybe they should think about how much money would be saved through efficiency, rather than austerity?

Through reading the previous cutting about the Courtney case, I knew that the couple, Jacqueline and Stephen Courtney, 49 and 52 respectively, were accused of fraud. Whilst posing as pensioner Marion Edna Holland’s carers, they were reported to have not given her change from her grocery and utilities funds, written themselves cheques and then managed to get her to sign over a large amount of shares, the total coming in at over £54,000. After a quick recap, the judge sent the jury off again to deliberate, and I followed Chris through the other courtroom to listen to the sentences as they were being given out. If the jury couldn’t reach a verdict today, Chris informed me that they would find one of the other cases to highlight for tomorrows edition.

I have to admit that at times I was nearly falling asleep. QCs, barristers and judges do tend to haver a wee bit (haver, if you’re not Scottish or familiar with the Proclaimers classic, ‘100 Miles’ simply means ‘to babble’). If you can sit through them discussing ‘personal abode burglary’ and such like you finally get to the really juicy part, the sentencing. This is where the judge gives his verdict, but of course he likes to give the waiting press a few juicy comments, and it is during this two or three minute finale that most of the quotes used in news reports seem to come from.

After a quick break for lunch, Chris went back to Court 2, while I went to speak to the Clerk of the Court in Court 3 about when the Courtney verdict might be due. As I walked in the jury was being crocodile marched into the courtroom, ready to give judgement. This resulted in me dashing like a madman to find Chris, so we could hear the verdict and hopefully the judges sentence.

As part of the review of the case, I had heard the judge run through the original police interview with Mrs Holland – a harrowing experience. She stated that she had thought the two accused were her friends, trusted them, and it was clear from her statement and the questions asked (sometimes asked repeatedly due to her bad hearing) that she was a woman who was on the edge of a mental collapse (a police source later admitted that she now has dementia, although I might have guessed from the transcript). It was with silence that they were found guilty, although I partly expected a round of applause, but I know now that this isn’t the done thing in court. The judge did, say during his sentencing them to four years each, that he felt the jury had made the right decision – so it seems he felt they were guilty as hell! Whatever this says about judicial impartiality, I felt they were too! His crowning comment was “This is the most appalling abuse of an elderly lady. The only true words you spoke throughout the trial were about the substantial effect on her,” followed by “I have sat as a judge for over 20 years in south Wales and before that was a barrister for 13 years. In all that time, you are amongst the most appalling people I have ever met.” As Lister from Red Dwarf would say, “Brutal!”

This was my first experience of justice in the UK, and all told I think it went as well as can be expected. As it stands, I feel a lot could be done to make court more efficient, although without a deeper understanding of the procedures I can’t offer much feedback. Maybe actually letting the judges know what they are meant to be presiding over and making sure everyone has the same paperwork would be a start? Perhaps marching the jury back and forward every time they have a query is a bit senseless and wastes a lot of time? But, without more observation I appreciate this latter is an area where impartiality must be sacrificed for efficient. What is clear is that a lot of crime goes on, even in a small town like Newport, with a full days schedule of sentencing, hearings and verdicts. What I discovered is unusual, and breaks from TV tradition is that these three parts are all distinct. Over the course of a few weeks you get the hearing, then a few weeks later the jury’s verdict is read, then sentencing takes place a few weeks after that. TV gives us the impression it all happens quite quickly, but in fact, from start to finish the whole process can take months. Chris admitted that to witness a sentencing on the day of the jury’s verdict is very unusual, so maybe it was just my lucky day? And if you include any appeal or reparation process involved you can add a month or so to these figures as well. All in all, I will leave further comment until I am a more experienced court reporter.

After getting and writing a couple of picture stories (which today I had the pleasure to see in print!), I got off about 4.55pm and caught my train home – the first bend of my massive learning curve to becoming a journalist myself. Looking forward to what tomorrow will bring…

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