A Cozzer Snout

Pondering the future of crime reporting.

On a comically miserable February morning, I made my way to Inner London Crown Court, a few minutes’ walk from the sodden chaos of Elephant and Castle station. Having jostled through security, a helpful staff member directed me across the building to a thin corridor populated by a smattering of uncomfortably suited coppers and crumpled solicitors. A few pensive defendants completed the scene, staring hard ahead or into phone screens. One middle-aged man in a Fulham FC tracksuit and bulging protective boot shattered the uneasy peace with a phone call. ‘Nah, it wasn’t looking good,’ he barked to his unseen interlocutor. The firearms charges were no joke.

Five minutes became ten, as I made my way to the packed public gallery above Court Four. Five Insulate Britain activists had been charged with criminal damage in late 2021, while two of their number had later been imprisoned for contempt of court. A faulty microphone made it difficult to understand the finer details of the defence’s argument. ‘Use your barrister voice and make it carry,’ beamed the judge. The well-wishers in the gallery eyed me with bemusement, perhaps sensing Special Branch or a lone anti-direct action nutjob. How reassured would they be, I wondered, to find out that I was merely a reporter on the loose.

We are sitting at a particularly uncertain juncture in the history of British crime journalism. The true crime supernova has warped our perceptions of its ailing health. For every big-budget podcast or splashy Netflix documentary, a hundred more redundancies have occurred across print media. Between 2012 and 2016, traditional court reporting dropped by 30% and 40% in the national and regional press respectively, a decline which shows few signs of reversal. Almost every national paper once had a dedicated court reporter, or at least a representative tasked with covering the biggest trials. Today, there are far fewer at the national papers, although some regionals still have a full-time correspondent or simply rely on the work of an overworked, underbylined news agency reporter.

This isn’t a positive development. As one veteran crime journalist noted in 2022, ‘the UK public is now largely unaware of how and why so many people – the highest per capita proportion in Western Europe – are punished and jailed’. It isn’t for a lack of interest. A year earlier, the Evening Standard’s court reporter Tristan Kirk had won plaudits, and a mass readership, for his coverage of the COVID fines scandal (his work uncovered thousands of often ludicrously disproportionate fines handed out to ordinary Londoners under the terms of emergency pandemic legislation). Editorial backing and time to hang about the Magistrates’ Court are increasingly tough-to-source ingredients. ‘The local news group I used to work for had ten reporters,’ he told me when we spoke in February. ‘I suspect it’s four or five now. I also think the way local newspapers are run these days, there’s a lot of emphasis on instant news.’

The origins of my interest in the wider subject are personal as well as professional. My late grandfather, David Ward, was a crime reporter for many years during the supposed mid-20th century ‘golden era’ of Fleet Street. His was a career that followed well-worn grooves: a lengthy apprenticeship across a series of regional newspapers, followed by promotion to the nationals, specifically the Daily Mirror. A path, and media landscape, which appears more decorously obsolete with every passing year. He’d enjoyed the job’s ceaseless adrenaline and relative glamour. The apparently mandatory daily boozing – perhaps too much.

We didn’t know each other well, or at all really. He’d died during my early childhood, though there have been no lack of compensatory stories which testified to his integrity and apparently unusually firm moral backbone (he’d resigned from the Mirror in the mid-1960s after refusing to doorstep the family of a recently murdered child). His book-length study of the infamous Victorian robber-murderer Charles Peace remains a compelling read. King of the Lags, first published in 1989, is what a contemporary audience would likely be asked to consider an example of slightly elevated literary true crime. The tone is sober, the prose carefully weighted. Peace – the Yorkshire-reared spectre of middle-class south-east London anxiety dreams – is unhysterically presented as precisely what he was: a vicious grotesque, partly moulded by the absurdities of his age.

In his breezily authoritative history of British crime journalism, veteran ex-Guardian journalist Duncan Campbell marches through three centuries worth of shifting terrain. We’ll All Be Murdered in Our Beds! has it all, from the early 18th-century pioneers (Daniel Defoe is sometimes credited as the first writer to have brought us the ‘celebrity criminal’ via his portrayal of the thief and master escape artist Jack Shepard in 1724) to the great excesses of mid-20th century Fleet Street my grandfather would have known, and beyond, to the rather more circumscribed present. The eye is drawn to a series of outsized Hogarthian cha­racters in bulletproof offices. Men like Jimmy ‘Prince of Darkness’ Nicholson or the News of the World’s Peter Earle (when a woman asked how she could be certain Earle was really from the tabloid, he’d replied ‘because I’m admitting it’).

I met up with Campbell in an east London café on a bitingly cold January morning. Much has changed over the course of his over half-century career, not least the relationship collapse between reporters and law enforcement. ‘It changed after Leveson. Trust was very quickly eroded.’ Campbell isn’t nostalgic for the lost chumminess of the 1970s. ‘There were clearly issues in “mutual advantage”, but this mistrust has created its own problems.’ Three, to be specific, he wrote in a recent piece. ‘Journalists not trusting the police, the police not trusting journalists, and the public often not trusting either.’

In 2022, the Guardian reported that police bosses across the country had imposed secret orders forcing officers to disclose any unsanctioned contact with journalists. The chilling effect is readily apparent. Michael Gillard is one of the country’s outstanding investigative reporters, writing extensively on organised crime and corruption, police and political, across London and beyond. ‘There has been an increased attempt to control crime reporting by making coppers fearful of losing their jobs if they talk to the press outside the press office,’ he explained when we spoke on the phone. ‘There’s also been an increased hostility to reporters, as evidenced by the arrest of the two Northern Irish reporters looking at state collusion with paramilitary death squads and the corrupt Cleveland police spying on local reporters looking into their corruption.’

In late 2020, I’d come across a short, provocative manifesto titled ‘Defund the Crime Beat’, co-authored that same year by two American journalists working out of Philadelphia. Their arguments are spotlessly clear, if mildly hectoring. ‘Let’s be honest: crime coverage is terrible… It’s racist, classist, fear-based clickbait masking as journalism. It creates lasting harm for the communities that newsrooms are supposed to serve. And because it so rarely meets the public’s needs, it’s almost never newsworthy.’ They alight on several key issues, such as a pernicious over-reliance on police sources and a lack of understanding, or care, about the long-term consequences of poor, or simply malicious, reporting.

So far, so reasonable. Still, there’s a reason an equivalent movement hasn’t really taken off on these shores. It isn’t, perhaps, that the British press is any less polluted than its American counterpart. No one with a passing knowledge of the appalling systematic collusion between the Met and assorted Murdoch journalists in what became known as the phone-hacking scandal would suggest such a thing. Fundamentally, it’s simply unnecessary to ‘defund’ something that market forces are steadily gutting without any need of outside interference. Much of Gillard’s earlier career was spent at the Guardian and the Sunday Times. Today, his main outlet is The Upsetter, via Substack. ‘It’s a refuge for long-form investigative pieces and an alternative to drive-by crime reporting in the mainstream. But you need to know what you’re doing as you carry all the legal and security risks.’

Outliers persist. In late 2022, I spent a week shadowing James Cruickshank, elusive editor-in-chief of The Digger, Glasgow’s tiny and brutally effective muckraking weekly (sample headline: PIGGY IS NOT HAPPY WITH SON-IN-LAW: SECRET AFFAIR SPARKS PRISON GANGSTER FURY). For the past 20 years he’s covered the stories much of the city’s media establishment have considered beneath them. Warring neighbourhoods and drug dealers. Unrepentant sex offenders and repeat drunk drivers. The stories that sell, week on week, mostly drawn from the Glasgow Sheriff Court, often referred to as the busiest one in Europe. ‘It’s an essential part of the democratic system, even if it gets looked down on by snobs,’ Cruickshank had explained to me. ‘My theory was that where there was muck there was brass.’

His bravado didn’t shock me half as much as the glorified cupboard masquerading as a ‘press room’, which was almost entirely empty save for a redoubtable agency reporter. One might easily take issue with Cruickshank’s methods and almost comically blunt views on criminal justice. How much public interest could there be, for instance, in the weekly printing of the full names and addresses of people convicted of often very minor offences? It’s equally difficult not to feel some admiration. With no online presence to speak of, it still manages to shift around 6,000 copies a week. There is no particular secret to its continued success. People just want to read about what was going on in their neighbourhood. Hyperlocal news in action, as we might put it today.

Last spring, I travelled back up to Glasgow at the invitation of The Ferret, an investigative journalism co-operative based in the city’s southside. It’s one of several alternatively funded publications that have cropped up across the UK over the past decade or so, including the Bristol Cable and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London. The panel discussion centred on the future of the crime beat, its current failings and the various ways it might be guided to improvement. The crowd was diverse and engaged, and didn’t hold back in their critiques. I’d particularly enjoyed chatting with journalist Rachel Hamada, one of the event’s organisers and the founder of It’s Criminal, a collaborative storytelling project that took place last summer to great success. ‘It was like [the audience] were waiting for the chance to talk about these kinds of issues. Like, yes: someone is finally asking me my opinion about it.’

The notion of community came up a lot. ‘Broadly speaking, community-­centred coverage would focus less on crime and more on justice in the widest sense of the word,’ said Hamada, ‘[such as] white-collar crime, political failure and corruption. It would acknowledge that journalism isn’t objective and writers always come from a specific perspective. It would contextualise crime, use data thoughtfully and employ and train reporters from communities affected by crime.’

Hamada’s cautious optimism had been shared by Kirk. Sure, there were fewer reporters covering the minutiae of the courts, but then there were simply fewer reporters across the board, whatever the beat. ‘However, the type of reporter being sent is changing. You get a different profile turning up. It hasn’t died, just changed.’ Gillard had ended on a more pessimistic note, noting the continued practice of police paying reporters as registered informants and the revolving door of journalists crossing the divide to work for police press offices.

At the end of the morning at Inner London Crown Court, my thoughts had taken on a similar harshness. As the microphone continued to frazzle and splutter, an elderly well-wisher shook his head in seeming existential distress. I’m not sure how the proceedings turned out, having had to run on account of another competing deadline.

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