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The Chronicler of the Cairns Trial – An Interview with Jared Savage

His paper broke the story which led to the Cairns trial, and Jared Savage has covered it brilliantly throughout. Scotty Stevenson spoke with him after the verdict.

Jared Savage spent nine weeks in London covering the Chris Cairns perjury trial for the New Zealand Herald. After the verdict was read, I talked to Savage over the phone about the trial, the people, and the power of concise reporting. Here’s the interview in full.

Firstly, I dare say you are feeling pretty drained after that but if I can get straight to it, what has been the biggest challenge in covering this case?

Yes, I’m glad it’s over, absolutely. I think in this case the biggest challenge was being away from home – being in London and a long way from my editorial and family support base. It’s hard feeling bad about being away from my wife and son, and I missed his first birthday, too.

Reporting on any big trial is a major commitment, but this trial seemed to take an eternity. Did it feel like that to you?

Yes, the time frame kept shifting out. Initially it was supposed to be a month then it was another week and then another. There were times when the breaks became very frustrating – the judge would need a day, then a juror would fall ill, then one of the lawyers would be unable to attend. There were points when you felt the frustration from everyone involved.

Let’s talk about the reporting itself. In general terms, just how tough is it to cover a trial like this?

Actually covering a court case is well, not exactly easy, but when you think about it, everything is happening right in front of you so the information is all there to use. The tough part is being quick while being accurate and fair. That’s not always easy because in some ways a court case is one-way traffic; the crown presents its case and that’s what you are going on. You have to almost keep ahead of the trial in terms of that balance.

I think back to when [Crown Prosecutor] Sacha Wass QC was lobbing grenades at Cairns – a tactic she is renowned for, there were very few objections from the defence. But, just as Cairns was warned by Justice Sweeney that he must answer questions, Wass was also warned about her line of questioning. Both of those elements were important in the reporting.

I remember reading your first reports from the Southwark Crown Court and thinking how damn straight they were. I mean that as a compliment – it was just really good reporting without the bullshit. Was that intentional?

Well, firstly, we’re talking about a case in which one of our legends of cricket is being accused of being dodgy by, amongst others, the current New Zealand cricket captain. As a journalist that storyline alone is absolutely compelling without having to gild the lily.

It stands that with court reporting you have to be careful though. Yes, you have qualified privilege to report but you need to be fair and balanced and accurate. I tried to be that. Also, I am not the best writer in the world so I tried to get as much detail as possible.

You say that about your own ability but I think that’s just wrong. This was great reportage. Don’t you feel that there is a still an important place for this type – your type – of writing?

Of course. I think factual reportage still has a massive place and I certainly thought it was the right style for this case. Some of that is through necessity – there was so much happening that I had to keep trying to be concise so I didn’t have time to try too hard in my prose. That’s no disrespect to those who can write that way. It just isn’t my style. I wanted to take people into the case through direct quotes, and verbatim conversations. I wanted to give them accuracy so that they could colour in the picture. I wanted them to be in the room, hearing what I was hearing. And I wanted to convey the sense that in these cases the words are important, both in the answers and in the questions.

Do you think you achieved that?

I think so. What was interesting in this case was that there were no cameras inside the court room. The sketch artists weren’t even allowed to sketch in courts. They had to take that mental image with them and complete their work outside. In some ways reporting is like that, but I was armed with quotes and they were my mental sketches.

I felt an onus to report it faithfully as I knew the kiwi audience would be interested. I felt a responsibility.

What about the people. You sat in an eight-week trial and watched several very high profile QCs go about their business. What did you take from watching them work?

Watching Orlando Pownall and Sacha Wass was extraordinary, really. They are both very high profile and both very good at what they do. I would add that the other QC in the mix, Jonathan Laidlaw who represented Andrew Fitch Holland – was just as impressive.

It was very interesting to see how they did things. Wass is famous for verbally knifing Rolf Harris. She was the one who put him away. She was quite similar in her style toward Cairns. She was combative in cross and really tried to get under his skin and it worked to a certain degree.

Pownall is almost the direct opposite – a very large and broad man with the air of old England about him. He was very careful with the words he used and was much more suggestive – maybe even passive aggressive.

You have watched a lot of trials in New Zealand. Did you notice a marked difference in the performance of the legal teams?

I actually thought about that at some point in the case when Wass was thundering away, or maybe when things got frosty between her and Laidlaw, or perhaps even when Pownall was summing up. I have to say, there is no need for New Zealand’s top practitioners to have any inferiority complex – they are every bit as formidable as the QCs in this case.

Being there for every single day of a trial takes some doing. Was there ever a point when you just thought you were completely over it?

Not so much from the work perspective. It was a gripping case to cover. It was a privileged assignment, really. It’s not exactly glamorous but here I am covering a case that people are reading every day. That’s a good place for any court reporter to be.

You talked earlier about the need for balance and fairness, but over the course of a trial – especially when you are so close – you form opinions. How do you keep those out of the coverage? How do you stop them from slipping into the reportage?

I will say first up that it is absolutely imperative that you keep opinion out of court reporting.  That’s hard because sometimes you cannot see the wood for the trees in a case like this. As I have already mentioned, you are always being presented with one side of things at a time. Keeping it simple and reporting what was said and trying to paint a picture without trying to colour it in for people, that would be my advice.

You are correct though in saying that you do form opinions. I was lucky in a sense that there was a group of us there covering the trial and each of us had different points of view away from the reportage. Tova O’Brien from 3News, Kevin Norquay from Fairfax, Emma Keeling from TVNZ, Amelia Romanos of AAP, and Cushla Norman of RNZ were all reporting the case and there would be times after days when we all had different takes on an answer or a question.

It was a check and balance system. That way you didn’t let how you felt influence your reports. That comes back to the fairness angle.

Did the work give you a sense of worth, journalistically speaking? And, if so, did that last the entire time or did you sense a wavering in readership or editorial support as the case ground on?

In those first few weeks when there were some pretty big names making some pretty sensational allegations, we knew there were some huge numbers on those stories. That gives you a sense of pride to know that you are reporting on a case and doing a good job of it. Most rewarding over those initial weeks was the engagement time on those stories, and some were bloody long too.

Oddly, we had two time changes while we were covering the case. When we first arrived we were 11 hours behind New Zealand so we could get a lot stories into the paper, and onto the front of the paper. Then we changed to 12 hours behind and that became a lot tougher to do. Once we got to 13 hours it became impossible but we could still have very fresh copy up online at 5am so people could wake up to up to the minute coverage.

I sensed in that middle couple of weeks that perhaps reader fatigue had set in, but I still felt that responsibility to the case and to the readers to cover every element of the trial as carefully as the very first. That’s reporting and that was the commitment I had made and the New Zealand Herald had made.

It’s good to get through that period because I could sense interest growing again as the verdict got near.

You seemed to take a small departure in your final reports today. There seemed to be a real focus on the emotion of the moment, as if you had torn up your own style sheet – briefly – and allowed yourself a little moment of genuine expression. Was that for your benefit, or the reader’s benefit?

It was about taking the reader there. Once the trial is done, you have a little more freedom to be a bit more descriptive. It was emotional for Cairns and it was raw and we didn’t need to try to draw anything more out of that. I actually thought it was faithful to the moment. He was exactly like that, it happened exactly like that, and I reported it exactly like that.

Maybe, I’ll allow the assertion that I was, in a sense, relieved the case was over.

And what about your feelings toward the man found not guilty today?

No matter what anyone thinks of what he may or may not have done, at the end it was hard – at a human level at least – not to have empathy for him. And I am comfortable with that. Being a journalist still allows for a level of human compassion and I watched this guy cut his lonely track to court every day for eight weeks.

In the end though it’s not for me to take sides – I was just here to report on what was said, and by whom.

Read Jared Savage’s reports from the Cairns trial here


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