Friday, 23 February 2018

Book review: The Court Reporter, Jamelle Wells (2018)

Having worked for almost two decades as the ABC’s court reporter, Jamelle Wells is well-placed to fulfil an important function as go-between between the public and the media. The law must not just perform its social, economic and political functions, it must also be seen to perform them. Open courts are a long-established part of the legal justice system in Australia (and other former British colonies such as the US and Canada), going back to eras long before the colonies were founded. This book is an artefact of open justice.

Court reporters continue to be necessary because of the stop-start nature of how justice works. The fluid narrative that you get in the evening newscast is nothing like the spasmodic drip of crucial information surrounding a case which might take literally years to emerge for big or complex cases. Careful attention by the court reporter is necessary at all times so that important information is not missed during a trial or a related hearing where details about a case are discussed in court between the prosecutors, the judge, and the defendants.

In her book, Wells touches on all levels of justice in the state of NSW, including the High Court when it sits in Sydney, the NSW Supreme Court and other, lower,  Sydney courts, local magistrates courts in the suburbs, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) as well as bespoke bodies such as the inquiry into the Sydney siege conducted by Man Haron Monis in 2014.

Dates are not always overt in the account, so it’s hard to know when Wells actually started working for the ABC; she was already working in the media before 2001 when the planes hit the Twin Towers, and she moved to the national broadcaster after that. But her wise, artful and interesting account of working on her chosen beat is something of a revelation. While she is tight-lipped about domestic arrangements – you never work out if she is married, has children or has a family of any sort – she is forthcoming in so many other ways.

Her discretion about personal lives comes into play in a topical fashion in 2015 when she breaks her hip outside the ICAC  court and is admitted by ambulance to St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, where nursing staff ask her about the domestic arrangements of colleagues including ABC News presenter Joe O’Brien, who visits her one day in the ward.

I mention family because it is true to say that working on this round would be stressful for anyone. You are repeatedly exposed to such harrowing accounts of abuse in the real sense of the word and you need to recalibrate from time to time in order to cope with the tireless onslaught of toxic information. Family would be one way to wind down. Wells talks at some limited length about such stresses of the job but you feel that more could have been said about how she personally deals with them on a daily basis. Juggling the cases she researches on the internet, looking for a variety of cases to cover in her round, might be one way to do this. But there might be other secrets of the trade that she could have reliably vouchsafed to her readership. Preserving mental health must be a priority for any worker in a large city. Or even in a country town (Wells hails from the remote NSW township of Cobar).

The range of cases she has covered is extraordinary but among the interesting things the book gives you access to are ancillary stories, such as that of Robin Gandevia and Denis Sullivan, two court watchers she came to know though her rounds. When Denis died, the elderly Robin wrote a letter to NSW Supreme Court Justice Lucy McCallum telling her how much the two of them had come to admire her in her courts. The judge took the time to respond to the letter, and the response is included in the book, along with the letter Robin had written.

Wells has a background in theatre, which has evidently been part of the way she stays sane outside of work, and one of the cases she elucidates is a trial involving songwriter Leonard Cohen, who was suing a former colleague in Los Angeles when Wells was visiting there one year. Wells went into the courthouse and made notes, which she subsequently turned into a story for the ABC – even though she was away on holidays at the time – but then she was approached by someone who asked her if she was a Buddhist. No, she replied, and asked him why he had asked her this question. He said it was because she had bowed before entering and leaving the court. In Australia bowing to the judge is conventional practice but it isn’t in America. Her training as a NSW court reporter had followed her to a foreign jurisdiction.

The voice in the book is knowing, wise, full of humour and sometimes incredulous at the lengths criminals will go to to mitigate the importance of their crimes in the face of the realities of the justice system. Wells also has a heightened sense of drama, and a nose for the right length a story should last before being terminated. She begins the account with the news of her mother’s terminal breast cancer, and the book ends with a small token her mother gave to her: a piece of jewellery shaped like a dragonfly.

It’s a fitting emblem for the book, because of the way this insect – which can go forward, backward, and stop in an instant, due to the fact that it has four wings that work independently of one another – can do remarkable things in flight.

The book is a welcome addition to the canon of books about journalism because it serves to humanise an often besieged cohort of the working population. Journalists are routinely attacked on social media by those whose expectations for other people far exceed the standards they would realistically apply to themselves.


Robin Gandevia said...

I am Robin Gandevia. I just wish to say that at 60,I don't feel "elderly" (yet). Denis was older (and wiser but left me much the wiser).

Jamelle is a most compassionate (young) woman, made of remarkable material to endure some of the difficult times a journalist in her position confronts. Denis and I enjoyed supporting Jamelle whenever possible.

I have no doubt that Denis would be proud of Jamelle's achievements with Jamelle's book, but still regrets the luncheon invitation that was never fulfilled!

Matthew da Silva said...

Hi Robin. I apologise for putting you in a category you feel unqualified for but the government in its official dealings classifies people aged 50 as "elderly"! (I am 55 myself.)