The laughter, as some of you might have figured out, is for the way we in the media reported the developments in Karnataka High Court over Jayalalithaa’s bail plea.
Even by Indian media’s remarkable consistency in plumbing lows, the bizarre goof up in reporting the bail that was not to be marks one of its deepest depths. Media houses ran the story that Jayalalithaa had been granted bail, based on the quotes of an advocate who had just come out of the court after listening to the judge giving the verdict. NO, that would have been too sensible and logical. News outlets had the report based on what the advocate said when they thrust all the mikes at him, while at around the same time the judge had not even begun dictating his verdict inside the court hall.
But even without outside confusion, reporting on legal matters is fraught with difficulty mainly because legal issues —- pardon if we get a bit technical here — tend to get a lot technical.
So, here we present a quick check-list for the benefit of reporters on court matters. We have good credentials to give advice on judicial matters. We have watched Boston Legal a couple of times.
Also, though the primer is for journalists, lay persons are also welcome to read this, as anybody can be a journalist these days
1) To start off, find out what they mean by prosecution, bailiff, respondent, defendant, centre forward et al. In judicial circles, these have important meanings. Once you grasp it, as a journalist you owe it to your readers to never use them under any circumstance, except when perhaps threatened with a loaded gun. Seriously, the moment any sane person comes across in a newspaper report a sentence with the word, say, plaintiff, he or she instantly moves to the section that features Brad Pitt and Jennifer Lawrence in extremely provocative poses.
2) Realise that there is a major difference between a lawyer and an advocate. This will help you to …add value to the news report? No, it will help you to create an impression with a wide-eyed intern that you are a knowledgeable and intelligent journo when in reality you once mistook a sulabh sauchalaya for a munsif court. As far as the lay reader goes, it doesn’t anyway matter whether you mix up advocate and lawyer, because you totally lost him/ her (the reader) when you brought up the term amicus curiae in your first paragraph.
3) While reporting on court verdicts, don’t get carried away by oral instructions, strictly go by what is said in the ‘order copy’, which is usually a thickish document marked by the presence of long sentences and foreign phrases that are used in English under the Rotary Exchange Programme.
4) Patiently read the ‘order copy’ from start to finish. As a journalist, this will give you the much needed insight on how to waste time. (Otherwise, for actual reporting reading the last two paragraphs that usually contain the operative portion of the verdict would suffice).
5) As a reporter you may wonder how to make sense of foreign phrases in judicial reports? Okay, this is a bit tricky and so we will try to deal this with a practical example:
“The charge that the councillor makes about the city’s roads and bridges also applies, mutatis mutandis, to its schools and municipal buildings.”
The problem word here is obviously: mutatis mutandis. What the heck does it mean? Try to work this out logically. Which language is it from? Latin. This should give you a big, big clue. Yes, you got it. If the language itself is long dead, how come individual words from it can still be alive and make sense? It can’t, right? Now remove mutatis mutandis from the sentence.
“The charge that the councillor makes about the town’s roads and bridges also applies to its schools and municipal buildings.”
Makes sense? See, we told you, no?
The general thumb rule in these circumstances is: In an otherwise perfectly normal line, when you encounter a foreign phrase, feel free to ignore it.
6) Judicial briefs contain a lot of sentences that sometimes run longer than the actual sentences that the judges hand over to criminals. Like in journalism, the judiciary is paid for on the basis on the number of words they come up with. At least that is what our suspicion is.
7) Have a fair understanding of the various laws in the statute. Also, acquire a decent knowledge of the Constitution. This will help you if you intend to sit for the law exams. Otherwise, we don’t know how this will help you in every-day news reporting.
8) And finally, when inside the court hall, always follow the prescribed rules and etiquette: Wear totally silly attire.