Order in the court

What you'll learn outside the lecture hall.

Note to readers: As part of my degree, I was required to complete 80 hours of professional placement within a six-month period. I completed it in three weeks. I woke up in the middle of the night for three weeks to intern on a TV News show. I packed a suitcase and lived in a different state for a month. When one of my peers dropped out of a great two-week radio stint, I didn’t think it wise to say no. I took on a third, then later, a fourth. Being an intern is a humbling experience. You don’t get paid anything, and you realise that people don’t have to be nice to you. But you have to start somewhere.

The following is an account of two days I spent in the County Court, and the knowledge I acquired:

Day One

The court proceedings begin with a false start – two knocks, then the ‘Judge’ walks out and is greeted with silence, with respect. ‘All stand’ says the tipstaff. It wasn’t him. It was his assistant. All sit and wait. We, the reporters, are seated in the jury box. Our media passes stand out. We are personnel. We are allowed an insight into a very private matter.

I am learning to be a journalist – gaining experience from this case, while their lives have been fractured.

The Judge walks out, his gown decorated with bold, gleaming purple material. He speaks slowly, purposefully. I hear the pitter-patter of ferocity on portable keyboards, hooked up to iPads. Two reporters walk in late, bow to the Judge, and take their seat away from the rest of the media, with the public gallery, where the victims are seated. They know to bend down where the camera is, so they don’t get in the way. They sit separate to them, but on the same level. They write with pen and paper, rather than the bright machines the rest are utilising. The Judge begins to deliver a monologue, and sometimes embeds his own thoughts into a sort of diatribe, whilst revealing facts about the case. It is a theatrical scene.

I feel a bit greedy, as a journalist, hanging onto details that have nothing to do with me. But as I look at the victims, trying hard not to stare, but also not wanting to ignore them, I see partners holding hands, glancing at me, possibly wondering what someone as young as me is doing there. I am clearly not a real journalist, for I am not ferociously typing notes. I am scanning the room, occasionally writing an observational note.

I don’t realise, as I walk in, that the perpetrator is sitting at the back of the room. During my second year of studying journalism, we spent one day in the County Court, and two weeks learning about defamation and contempt of court. My little experience in this area renders me naïve, where everyone else knows the protocol. He, like me, hangs onto every word the Judge says. He is attentive. He doesn’t obviously show remorse, or any other emotion at all. He is just there, listening throughout the five-hour ordeal.

The Judge delivers the proceedings slowly, because each victim’s story needs to be heard. It makes one wonder, are they glad he is taking this approach, or do they just want it over quickly?

I feel uncomfortable as I go to the bathroom and one of the prosecutors holds open the door for me. I am waiting in line with some of the victims. I almost feel it is selfish for me to be in the room. I am learning to be a journalist – gaining experience from this case, while their lives have been fractured. I feel even wearier being the last person to file into an elevator with them after the first day; my media pass singling me out. I race down to tell the camera operator that they are coming out, so they should prepare to film their feet and their backs. They are to remain faceless to preserve their anonymity.

I worry I would be too soft to be a court reporter. You have to be detached from the victims. I felt for them greatly that day. I still feel for them now.

Day Two

As I enter the County Court on the day of the sentencing, the man I recognise as the Judge walks out, in his normal attire – a grey suit. Is he getting a last minute bite to eat? Or is he clearing his head before he has to deliver the long-awaited verdict?

I learned that university can’t completely prepare you for the workforce. You learn by getting out there and doing it, through experience.

There are two officers today in charge of the man on trial. A familiar reporter walks in. The accused wears the same clothes as the day before. A blue shirt, the collar tucked in. He has thick, black glasses frames and looks completely innocuous from where I sit. The Judge’s associate, with beady eyes and a serious demeanour, sees I am there again, and gives me a knowing look.

The other reporters are impatient. The Judge is half an hour late. I picture him, in my head, deliberating. He wants to bring the victims peace, and deliver the fairest result. The reporters just want to file and story and move onto the next one.

——

I learned that university can’t completely prepare you for the workforce. You learn by getting out there and doing it, through experience. As professional and intimidating as some reporters are, they are not robots. They too make mistakes, and lots of them, albeit of a smaller nature and not as frequently as a novice journalist. In the newsroom, the atmosphere can be tense. People are nice, but they are busy, and as an intern, you can’t be too passive, for then you are useless, but you also can’t be too keen, because then you’re annoying. My advice is to observe, and ask questions. Knowledge can only be acquired by doing, and if it’s journalism you’re keen to get into, just remember not to lose your sensitivity. It’s important to be strong. It’s also important to feel.

In the County Court of Victoria, I was able to consolidate my knowledge of media law. Textbooks and lectures are a useful guide, but you have to get out there and immerse yourself in every story you file. Observe the people; listen to what both sides have to say. Question it all until you’re satisfied you have a balanced story.
And never stop learning.

 

Simone West studies a Bachelor of Communication (Journalism) at RMIT University.

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