Court 73 of the 18th century Royal Courts of Justice has a very modern extension. It is a custom-made air-conditioned annexe holding the 130 ‘silver card’ members of the media who were not able to get into the court proper for the inquest into the death of Princess Diana.
The chambers themselves are reserved for the 24 ‘gold carders’ – those members from the national media who do not need to rush off to the phones to file copy every five minutes.
Not that being stationed in the annexe will hamper reporting. With nine huge screens showing the live proceedings, transcripts, maps, photos, computer generated mock-ups and the ubiquitous CCTV footage, reporters and photographers are well catered for.
Versions of the media annexe have been used in previous high-profile cases, such as the Lockerbie Inquiry and Soham. This one is similar to its direct predecessor used in the Hutton Inquiry.
State-of-the-art press office
The annexe, plus a number of other state-of-the-art ingredients used to manage the media scrum, are the brainchild of Richard Bailey, press officer to the inquests.
Bailey was senior press officer in charge of forward planning for the Department of Constitutional Affairs until going freelance two years ago. Specialising in handling the media around legal and political events including the Soham court case, Hutton and Lockerbie inquiries and general elections, he has been brought in by old colleague Peter Farr, chief public information officer at the courts, to handle the day-to-day media work for the inquests.
Bailey told PRWeek: ‘We plan for the busiest day. We want to see ourselves as helping the media, but we also have to protect the dignity of the court. That has to come first. It is a really fine balance.’
That balance is perfectly illustrated by the fact that Bailey must resist media pleas for any kind of tip-offs about the nature of the upcoming evidence.
‘The media will always try to push the boundaries back in their favour,’ he explains. ‘Twenty-four-hour news is particularly hard, because journalists have to wait until the evidence has been in front of the jury.’
Bailey has instituted a number of innovations to make the process smoother for all, including allowing a camera pool to accompany a court visit to Paris, the first time this has happened.
Logistics aside, the major difficulty facing Bailey and the members of the court’s PR team is the sheer volume of interest in the case, which outflanks even the most high profile cases that Bailey has been involved in previously.
It is not surprising that the American media has sent a heavy contingent, but reporters and photographers have also been appearing from as far afield as Japan and Qatar.
‘The challenge for us is that a lot of these people need to have the judicial process explained to them,’ says Farr. ‘It is time-consuming, just at the time when we’re very busy anyway.
The team are breaking new ground in the speed they are able to get video evidence out to the press – within hours of it appearing in court, such as the grainy footage of Diana smiling in a hotel lift.
Within two hours the CCTV footage is on a CD that Bailey takes over to the BBC’s outside broadcast van, where they broadcast the whole thing live. The press and other broadcasters can then download what they need. As Richard says: ‘I always like to use the media to help me whenever I can.’
But such logistical puzzles were dwarfed by the potential for mayhem on Monday and Tuesday, when the court visited the Paris location of the crash. A party of 16 reporters and photographers were selected at random to be part of this ‘walking courtroom’, and were responsible for pooling their photos and reports to the rest of the media.
The court and its select media entourage were surrounded by a cordon of French police, who protected them from a media scrum estimated to have been 500-strong, as they walked toward the scene of the crash.
An added complication arose from the fact that the British courts have no jurisdiction in Paris, so they had no power to prevent the media from filming the jurors. To manage this, Richard made sure the pocket of walking photographers were placed 15 to 20 metres behind the jury, so they were not able to photograph their faces.
With the inquest likely to run for the next six months, Farr, Bailey and their team are prepared for the ups and downs of media interest, all depending on which witnesses are called up and which days Al Fayed is present
Romilly Weeks, ITN’s royal correspondent, praised the Royal Court’s efficient handling of the press since the inquest opened, adding that Al Fayed is likely to dominate the story: ‘It’s the coroner’s job to investigate Al Fayed’s accusations, so he’s going to be a big part of this. But at the same time, the coroner gave the opening statement, so he figured highly in coverage.’
But as Al Fayed draws the media scrum whenever he appears, it is clear that whatever the press office do, there is only one man truly driving the story.
- Richard Bailey is handling the day-to-day PR support for the inquiry at the Royal Courts of Justice
- Michael Cole is the ex-head of public affairs at Harrods. He runs his own PR agency and has returned to help Al Fayed deal with the inquest
- Katherine Witty is Al Fayed’s new director of public affairs, previously royal correspondent at Sky News
Met press office is taking a backseat role now the inquest is up and running