Interview with Court Reporter and Legal Affairs Producer at ABC Sydney Bureau, Jamie McKinnell
Jamie McKinnell is a Court Reporter and Legal Affairs Producer at the ABC Sydney Bureau. Medianet sat down with Jamie to discuss his career as a court reporter covering his day to day proceedings, interests, highlights and challenges throughout the Australian criminal courts system.
Tell me a bit about what it's like to work as a Court Reporter and Legal Affairs Producer.
My day-to-day role involves attending court cases which our editorial team has identified as being worth following. These can vary greatly, from brief first appearances, to attending very lengthy ongoing trials, to seeing things through to their resolution and potential sentences. There is a huge variety in the types of cases we're interested in. They are predominantly criminal matters, although cases outside of this such as defamation or intellectual property are an emerging interest for me.
Is there a story you've covered or experience in court that has particularly stuck with you that you could share?
The first major trial I covered was the case of Brett Cowan, the man who murdered Queensland schoolboy Daniel Morcombe. I will never forget the first day, when I was relatively new to court and the Crown prosecutor made an extensive opening address, revealing the covert operation which led to the arrest. There was some incredible police work involved. But what sticks with me about this case is becoming more familiar with Daniel's parents, Bruce and Denise, and the remarkable determination and grace they showed during such a traumatic process.
Obviously courts can be very challenging environments to work in... How do you cope with covering a lot of distressing or traumatic events? What motivates you?
I realised very early that it's important to have an outlet to switch off outside work. The trickiest part is that you can be exposed to some pretty disturbing material, but due to editorial guidelines you sometimes can't include the extent of those details. You become almost like a filter between the courtroom and the audience, where it's important to find the balance between making sure the audience understands the seriousness of some alleged crimes, but not including details that could border on the gratuitous. For me, exercise is a huge part of coping. If I have a particularly extreme case to report on, I make sure I go for a big run or swim laps if I'm feeling like I'm taking it home with me too much. What mostly motivates me is seeing the justice system at work, as well as learning how to sensitively interact with people like relatives or loved ones who are going through some of the worst times of their lives. It can be rewarding to see them come through that and, in an ideal situation, feel like justice has been served.
Are there some more lighthearted, humorous or happy moments as well?
Once we started to rely more on video links through COVID19, the issue of "hot mics" became more prevalent for both parties and judges. I've heard barristers compliment one another on their haircuts (or lack thereof) through lockdowns. I once heard a judge who, prior to the start of a hearing, was discussing how difficult the written submissions were to follow, not realising the microphone was already live and the parties could hear every word. That judge came back and put those thoughts on the record. I've also seen an interstate barrister who was interested in a case accidentally join a video link with their camera on, appearing from their car wearing a tracksuit as they waited for a COVID test. The magistrate later reassured them that the court wasn't offended, but helpfully suggested: "When you get the stick up the nose and you're yelling in pain, could you please mute".
How do you choose what cases to attend and/or cover? What makes something stand out to you as a potentially newsworthy story?
A major part of the court round people don't see is the admin work where we keep a detailed diary of cases, their next dates and where they're up to. Every night, we will go through this diary and also scan through daily court lists of what's happening the next day to put together a shortlist. In the mornings, the decision is made by an editorial team what could be the most fruitful case to listen to. But we often have to have a "plan B" or even "plan C" in case things fall over, as they often do. A case can stand out as newsworthy for a few reasons. It could involve someone with a public role or one with authority (for example, police officer, teacher, politican, athlete, actor), or the uniqueness or seriousness of the alleged crime might make it one we follow. Sometimes, it can also come down to an interesting law that's at play (for example, adverse possession is something that hardly ever comes up).