Those practising in the criminal courts have gradually witnessed journalists disappearing from their allocated rows in court and reporting of cases more generally being phased out.

In a digital age where the news is reduced to #instashorts, and when there are often inaccuracies broadcast on social media about the evidence in cases, it begs the question: do court reporters still play an important function in our legal system, and should the profession care that their numbers are rapidly declining?

I’d like to think the principle of open justice is enough to persuade not only our profession but the general public of their pivotal role.

There is no better example of the importance of court reporting than the podcast which covered Lucy Letby’s trial.

Devised by the Daily Mail’s northern correspondent Liz Hull together with her colleague, the broadcast journalist Caroline Cheetham (ex-BBC), the pair produced a pioneering podcast following the trial’s evidence just as the jury did, reporting back to listeners in weekly episodes.

On 18 August 2023 Lucy Letby, a 33-year-old former neo-natal nurse, was found guilty of murdering seven babies and attempting to murder six others while in her care at the Countess of Chester Hospital.

During the course of the trial, I along with 14 million others became an avid listener.

The 64 episodes painstakingly constructed feature interviews with special guests, including experts on criminology and interviews with staff members at the Chester Hospital who grew suspicious of the former nurse and repeatedly tried to whistleblow. All of which provides a fascinating insight into not only the experience of court reporting but more importantly the specifics of this notorious case.

The production is set against the background of Liz’s impressive 20-year plus career reporting on some of the most fascinating, albeit desperately sad cases including The Hillsborough Inquests, the Manchester Arena bombing, and Crown Court cases such as the murder of Rhys Jones.

In a time when we still only film the most limited aspects of court proceedings, this podcast series has quite literally brought the courtroom into people’s everyday lives.

I speak to Liz early one cold October morning over Teams. We begin by discussing how the series was able to modernise court reporting into a ground-breaking digital format. What strikes me immediately is just how sensitively Liz and Caroline approached the very harrowing evidence.

From the outset both clearly had the families of the babies at the forefront of their minds and were very careful not to sensationalise evidence, which was often so distressing it needed no dramatisation.

Letby now awaits a retrial provisionally set for June 2024, concerning one of the six attempted murder charges on which the jury failed to reach a verdict. As such, reporting restrictions understandably remain in place to prevent any risk of prejudice to those proceedings and so discussions of the evidence between Liz and I were constrained.

When I ask Liz why she and Caroline had chosen podcasts, rather than videos, she is (rather refreshingly to hear) self-deprecating. Liz doesn’t enjoy watching herself nor listening to the sound of her own voice. The latter we agree is preferable to the former.

During the course of our conversation, we discuss how, over the course of her career, the appetite for such news has changed. As Liz reminds me, ‘We can’t rely on the public reading broadsheets anymore.’ She talks about the coverage of Harold Shipman’s case and how 2004 (when I was a teenager developing an interest in the law) seems like a different age – a time when we were reliant on the 6 o’clock news or the Sunday papers for a full update.

Liz makes a valid point that, back then, we might have relied on readers digesting such subject matter on their Tube journey, flicking through a newspaper, or listening to the radio over a bowl of cornflakes and this isn’t so much the case now. Modern reporting aims to quickly grab the reader or listener’s attention span, making it easier to detach from the often graphic nature of the content.

I remind her she’s speaking to someone who looks through photos of crime scenes while eating their dinner. She laughs, but I take her point: the general public don’t have the appetite for a case like this to be laid bare in print alone. The vulnerability of Letby’s victims, even if described purely in text, is enough to arouse emotion in even the most stoic of us.

Letby is, though, Liz reminds me, the first British serial killer in a time of social media and so it’s perfectly natural that reporting has adapted in the wake of her case.

Liz highlights the explosion in popularity of ‘true crime’ podcasts which show that the ‘public still have a fascination with serious crime and offenders and being able to listen to “justice being done” in real-time via our podcast became an obsession for some listeners’. She tells me that a handful started coming to court themselves and even featured in a discussion about the case after the verdicts in the ‘court watchers’ episode.

Nonetheless, Liz reminds me that opportunities like this, dedicated reporting of a single case regardless of its notoriety, is not often afforded to journalists. Rather, today’s reporters are often time poor, juggling several stories and at the mercy of public transport.

What becomes clear as we speak is the critical importance of the input from Cheshire Police in ensuring the podcast’s success and the absolute accuracy of reporting. Liz explains that while the officers did not discuss the evidence with members of the media, the presence of dedicated reporters at court every day enabled the police to build relationships with them. That ongoing rapport established a level of trust such that Liz and others could be relied upon to carry out pre-verdict interviews with senior officers and briefings without fear of anyone derailing the trial, thus enabling the press to better report aspects of the case, for example how the police interpreted Letby’s behaviour in interview, and their thoughts on her personality and motive, once the verdicts came in.

As Liz highlights, lessons are being learnt from tragic cases such as that of Nicola Bulley in early 2023 in so far as improving relations between the press and police, at a time when reverberations are still felt from the ‘bomb that was put under those relationships’ (as Liz puts it to me) a decade ago by the Leveson Inquiry.

While the world Liz entered as a young journalist two decades ago was filled with dedicated court reporters, their presence may be seen now as a rare luxury when in reality it ought not to be. Caroline and Liz’s work on this case proves just how important it is we guard against an environment wholly concentrated on fast-paced news, how we should seek to promote investigative journalism, and just how worried we ought to be that dedicated court reporters are rapidly disappearing regardless of the medium by which they choose to report.