How standing up for the right to report left me in the eye of a storm

Stephanie Finnegan

Court reporter Stephanie Finnegan was the journalist who helped ensure reporting restrictions in a case involving the founder of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson, were lifted. Her reporting set the national news agenda — and also resulted in a significant backlash online from Robinson’s supporters. Here, Stephanie reveals how standing before the judge to get restrictions lifted was just the start of the story:

If you’ve been online in the last few days, it was hard to miss the news about Tommy Robinson.

Which is exactly why I challenged the judge’s order to have the reporting restriction on his case lifted.

Here’s how it happened…

I’m a court reporter for Leeds Live and the Huddersfield Examiner. As I do most Friday mornings, I walked up to Leeds Crown Court and noticed a familiar face outside.

I knew exactly what he was there for — a trial with a reporting restriction on it.

Robinson was live streaming to Facebook and had a number of his supporters with him.

Tommy Robinson is arrested

There was a heavy police presence at court in anticipation of these protests starting up again and, about five minutes later, another reporter told me he’d been arrested outside court on suspicion of breaching the peace.

Shortly afterwards, Robinson was brought up from the court cells and pleaded guilty to contempt of court. I stuck around.

Myself and a reporter from the Yorkshire Evening Post were the only two journalists present for his court hearing.

The judge made a temporary order banning reporting on the case. He made it clear that it should extend to his arrest, which is part of the criminal proceedings.

There’s no other way to describe it than to say social media had already gone NUTS.

Robinson’s sentence was leaked and the whole thing quickly went global with Fox News reporting it and an American journalist telling me the video was on a 36-hour news cycle there.

A protest was staged in London and someone poured beer on 10 Downing Street.

On Tuesday morning, I stood up in court and challenged the order, also emphasising that the sheer volume of coverage across the globe had to justify it being lifted and that it was almost as if the local journalists were being penalised for being bothered to go to court.

Judge Geoffrey Marson QC rejected the challenge, basically on the grounds that two wrongs don’t make a right and that it would only be a matter of days until he was due to lift the order anyway.

Just before lunch, I popped my head into the courtroom again. As I did, the judge announced that he’d received an email from the Independent journalist and said he was now “minded” to lift the order.

He asked me to stand up and discuss the issue with him again so I did and he agreed to lift it.

I can’t even begin to describe how difficult it was to bite my tongue during all this, but I made a Twitter thread in preparation of the moment the order was lifted and thought over the legal issues involved multiple times.

You may have seen it now — there’s were more than two million views on my tweets in the first24 hours. The definition of Reach.

Our regional digital editor Ed Walker told me that within 14 hours the court report alone for LeedsLive had 25k page views, nearly half of which came from social media.

This shows not only the importance of having local court reporters who attend court daily, but also the importance of having a social media presence and using it responsibly.

Since then, I’ve received threats to harm me and members of my family, both physically and sexually.

I’ve also gotten an overwhelming amount of support, including from journalists across the industry, the co-author of McNae’s (framing that, not gonna lie) and the Secret Barrister and interviews on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and BBC Asian Network, which I think takes precedence over the abuse.

Honestly, that’s the only thing in all of this that has me on the verge on tears.

I would like to thank my editor Wayne Ankers for supporting me all day and night on the phone and even against the trolls on Twitter — despite being off and minding his two young children!

I’d also like to thank the rest of the Leeds team, particularly Samantha Gildea and Matt Millington for their complementary pieces explaining the legal issues involved at such short notice on Tuesday morning. There’s no I in team and I’m really glad that we’re putting Leeds on the map together.