What can the PR industry do for judges? I ask because the judiciary,
from Lord Chief Justice downwards, keeps sentencing itself to public
odium even though I have four times over the past 18 months tried to
help it arrest its slide down the league table of public esteem. Have I
got it wrong?
In appealing to the higher court of the PR industry, you should perhaps
know that I have never been accused before any court and always seek to
uphold the law. I have, however, frequently criticised Lord Chief
Justice Taylor for whitewashing the fans who caused the Hillsborough
soccer disaster, which he investigated, and castigating the police
This evidence of my law-abiding independence may explain why - months
before I found Sir Richard Scott’s recent report into our trade with
Iraq a greater indictment of the judiciary’s faults than the
Government’s - I was asked to speak at conferences of stipendiary
magistrates, recorders or judges on managing the media.
My case can be summarised in a sentence: you won’t improve your image
unless you improve your product and its presentation. I argued that the
public - and the media which reflect its attitudes - think that judges
are too lenient. They should therefore anticipate sentences likely to be
thought too soft with a proper explanation, ideally on paper, so
reporters have no excuse for failing to understand their argument. If
the press ignored or distorted it, they should pursue editors. They were
entitled to a fair hearing.
My line was generally supported by Richard Ferguson QC, chairman of the
Criminal Bar Association. But I know of only one judge who has written
to a newspaper to explain his decision - after it caused a fuss. The
judiciary seems pretty supine in the face of provocation.
The problem is made worse by the activities of the more senior judges.
Lord Chief Justice Taylor is entitled to argue, as he did last week,
that mandatory life sentences for those convicted a second time for
serious violent or sexual offences or minimum sentences for burglars and
drug dealers would be neither just nor work. But he would carry greater
conviction if the public did not feel that we have a wet bench which is
getting above itself.
It is not the function of judges to tell governments how to run the
country. Yet Sir Richard Scott did just that in arguing across 1,800
pages for more open government. And judge after judge, in finding
against the Government’s administration of policy, gives the impression,
rightly or wrongly, that he thinks its policies are wrong. Hence my PR
advice to judges: improve your product. And stick to law. Policy is for
ministers who have taken the trouble to secure election. Is this good
advice or not?