This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
"Get ready for a white-knuckle ride," deadpans Guy Toyn, a court reporter and the director of Court News UK, as he leads me into the press room in the bowels of the Old Bailey, the central criminal court of the UK. A couple of old police constables sit at empty desks. At another, a man in a suit waves politely. It's a windowless space that could easily double as the set of the IT Crowd. "It used to be packed down here," says Toyn. "Back then you could smoke in here, too. I was on 40 Bensons a day."
I've never been to the Old Bailey before, which is amazing really. Not because of my relentless criminal activity, but because I've lived in London for almost ten years and never thought to pay a visit to what is, arguably, the most famous court in the world. Toyn isn't surprised.
"I don't think people even know they can view trials," he says. "The whole concept of open justice and why it's important is lost on most people. There used to be queues around the block to come and see certain trials; not any more. Sometimes you see the odd little queue and a few students. The interest in some trials used to be absolutely enormous. I suppose that's been steadily decreasing since the abolition of the death penalty."
Maybe it's the fleece he's wearing, but Toyn has an air about him: He seems to be a man who has seen a lot. And, frankly, he has. For much of the past 20 years, Toyn's working life has been spent inside the Old Bailey's walls, watching, listening, and reporting on the cases—the macabre, the weird, the dull—that come through the courts every day.
"All human life is laid bare within these walls," Toyn tells me, sitting at a huge mahogany table outside one of the courtrooms. "It's not only about the horrible things that happen, but also the bravery that people show. Every court case is a magnificent piece of theater—the barristers you see working are some of the most intelligent people you'll ever come across. And it's a privilege to work in this place itself, which is obviously a building of tremendous history."
Indeed, the Central Criminal Court—known as the Old Bailey after the road on which it stands—has been open in its current state since 1907. It has existed, though, in one form or another, since 1673. The Krays, Ruth Ellis, Peter Sutcliffe: These are just some of the infamous names to have been tried there, and whose trials would have filled the pages of the newspapers of the day.
But gone are the days of numerous reporters sitting in court every day of a trial. Court News UK—the digital arm of news agency Central News—is the only specialist courts and tribunals agency operating within the UK, and as traditional journalism continues in its decline, more and more news outlets are relying on Toyn and his team to supply them with stories.
"When I first came to cover the Old Bailey, there were about four or five agencies here. Now, there's basically us and Press Association," says Toyn. "And it used to have four reporters, now it has one. You don't see national newspaper reporters turn up for many trials now at all. At the end of the Hatton Garden trial, for example, there wasn't one national newspaper reporter present when they were convicted. The Soham murders [in 2002] was probably the last massive trial. It really has changed absolutely."
Of course, national papers do still carry major crime and court stories, albeit perhaps in a reduced number. But the decline of the UK's local press has meant many serious stories go unheard, which, argues Toyn, "is not only a dreadful shame because people aren't being informed, but a tragedy for the democratic process as a whole.
"Court reporting does take a long time, and a local newspaper can't really sit around day-in and day-out and do it any more," he says. "That's why agency reporters are so valuable. But what we've ended up with is a situation where so many court cases just don't get covered in local papers at all. We recently had a very interesting case where a guy carried out five serious sexual assaults in Poplar, East London. Those sexual assaults were never covered in the local newspaper—his arrest was never covered. Nor was the opening of his trial, his conviction, his sentence. You have to really ask yourself: What is the function of these local newspapers if they can't keep people properly informed?"
Clearly, the lack of court reports is not down to a diminished appetite for such stories—you only need to look at our current obsession with true crime to know that people will never tire of reading or hearing about sordid, unlawful doings. But, says Toyn, this "isn't about whether people want to read these stories or not. We're talking about a central, civic function of newspapers. If they can't keep people informed when a man has gone out on bail and raped someone, we have to ask ourselves: Is there any point in them existing at all?"
And that's perhaps where a site such as Court News UK can step in. Toyn and his team are currently working on a relaunch that will see the site collate all the material they publish, with the aim of providing people better access to what's going on in their area of London. In the meantime, Toyn helps keep people in the know with the site's attached Twitter feed, which—with 53,000 followers and counting—has become something of a cult account online. Nowhere will you find a better insight into London's life of crime, as well as the lesser seen workings of the judiciary, than @CourtNewsUK.
Stories of stolen underwear sit alongside tales of brutal murder. There are Carry On–esque misdemeanors and then horrific stories of rape. Stylists smacking people with champagne flutes, next to cases of alleged child abuse.
This is what the underbelly of Britain looks like, in 140 characters.
"People are very interested in the bizarre, the surreal, and the outlandish, and to a certain extent, the Twitter feed reflects that—although we try to put as much of what you might describe as normative news on there as well," says Toyn.
"When you consider people's defenses—one which sticks in my mind is the Saudi Arabian millionaire accused of rape—some of their explanations are utterly bizarre," says Toyn. "And because they're utterly bizarre, sometimes they're richly comic. I've been told off a number of times in court for having a right old laugh. It's not against the law; it happens. The judge is there to try to make sure the proceedings carry on and people take it seriously, and people must take it seriously. People's lives are on the line, and there are victims, which should never be forgotten. But sometimes things happen that are absolutely, utterly bloody hilarious."
Really, though, a good crime story is a murder story, Toyn tells me. "'If it bleeds, it leads' is an old American newspaper adage, and I think it still holds true today," he says. But they're hard to come across now. Toyn should know: "I think I've covered more murder cases than anyone in the UK living at the moment," he says.
Toyn describes a "good murder case" as if reciting off a favorite recipe. "When we're looking at a tasty murder case, what we really need is people who have jobs, professions. If we can throw in a bit of sex or romantic interest, that's fantastic. And then we need a little bit of cash," he says. "Unfortunately, the people who have all those things are perhaps unlikely to commit murders nowadays because they know they're going to get caught. As you know, murdering someone is easy, but it's the disposing of the body that always causes the problems."
After 20 years in court, is there anything that could shock you now?
"No," Toyn replies without hesitation. "I'm not numb to it all—I avoid going into cases involving offenses against children, as I find them upsetting. But I've basically heard enough of the truly horrific and the truly bizarre [not to be shocked]. I can't repeat some of the stuff I've heard in this building. The most extreme stuff can be really, really grotty. Body disposal, cannibalism—I've heard it all.
"I always think to myself, if I'd have kept a diary from the start, it would have been astonishing. Every single case. The balls ups made by barristers and some of the ridiculous judges we've had over the years. There have been some loose canons that made you wonder how they were allowed to keep practicing."
Toyn leads me into a courtroom, and I sit and listen to a murder trial. A young man takes the witness stand, and a group of aging male barristers in wigs enunciate at him very slowly. I realize I know very little about the judicial process. The trial is a strange mix of the everyday and extraordinary. As much as I try to take in the enormity of what I am viewing, my mind still wanders to lunch. Outside the court, the witness sits on a bench with his head in my hands while I look up the details of the case he's involved in. It's not pleasant. A gaggle of people exit another court for coffee and cigarette. A barrister plays a game on an iPad. All human life is laid bare.
What's the future for the court reporter?
"I think it's limited, to be quite honest with you," says Toyn. "People talk about televising the courts, and I'm afraid they're talking absolute nonsense. It's just ridiculous and would be no benefit whatsoever. The BBC and Sky have their cameras up at the High Court, but I think they're more interested in the drama of the criminal trial than they are in justice. Journalism is in very real crisis, and it means the bottom line is this: We're all going to be under-informed. And no one's up in arms about it."
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