Obituary: remembering my colleague James Doleman's pioneering court reporting
Angela Haggerty, former The Drum journalist, recalls the pioneering court reporting of her esteemed friend and colleague James Doleman, who died this weekend after a decade-long fight against cancer.
/ Angela Haggerty
It is from a vague memory, sometime in 2013, that I first remember him. I was a reporter at The Drum and mentioned ‘James Doleman’ to my editor, Gordon Young. Two of the most senior figures in the UK press, Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, were about to go on trial on charges relating to the phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloids, namely the News of the World. And James was all over it.
This case was huge. Prior to the trial, Murdoch took the unprecedented step of shutting down the News of the World entirely after reports emerged about the scale of the scandal, including the hacking of missing Milly Dowler’s voicemail, an action which had inadvertently given the murdered schoolgirl’s parents hope that she was still alive and accessing her phone. The mood of the public was of anger and disgust, and the scandal morphed into a symbolic example of everything the public - and many politicians - felt was wrong with the UK media. It became a battle that prompted the Leveson inquiry into press ethics and the prosecution of Brooks, Coulson and others.
So when the trial came around, we at The Drum wanted to provide coverage that mattered. I became aware of James Doleman during the Tommy Sheridan perjury trial in 2010 when James took it upon himself to attend every day of the trial and publish it on a blog. This was unheard of back then.
He later told me that he’d been at a bit of a loose end in life when he decided to do it. He had been an activist in left-wing politics since his teens, and the Sheridan trial - in which socialist Sheridan was accused of perjury after winning a defamation case against, you guessed it, the News of the World - was a big deal in Scotland.
Journalistic counterparts saw James as a bit of a joke in the beginning. A man with no formal legal or media training, he told me they found it amusing that he thought he could blog a trial. But the man with no business being there, who’d been sneered at by other journalists, was intelligent and savvy - he paid close attention in court, educated himself on contempt of court and media law, and he produced some of the best coverage of the trial.
But not only that, he’d disrupted the media norm. He had actually done something groundbreaking - he had broken through the traditional journalistic gatekeeping around court reporting and shown that a mere mortal, harnessing the resources of the internet, could do it, too. And could even be better at it.
However, he was still a relatively unknown name, especially for a trial as high-profile and complex as the phone-hacking trial. Luckily, my editor, Gordon Young, had a terrific knack for spotting an opportunity and seeing the potential in someone. After meeting with James, he gave the go-ahead. James would relocate from Glasgow to London for the duration of the trial and submit two daily reports. In a trial that had major implications for the UK press, The Drum was putting in resources to provide substantial, fair and accurate coverage, and James Doleman would be our man to do it.
And do it, he did. Emphatically. With no shorthand skills, it amazes me to this day that James was able to record the vast amounts of information that he did. Other journalists were there too, of course, but nobody else provided the substantial reports that James did. He had done it again - he had subverted the journalistic establishment during a trial.
He wasn’t the only disruptor at the trial. Peter Jukes, who went on to create Byline Times and became a great friend of James, live-tweeted the entire thing. Again, they were scoffed at in the beginning, but by the end, they had both gained huge respect from the journalists in the courtroom and the legal executives. By 2014, James was named as one of the best UK reporters on Twitter by Press Gazette.
The trial ran from October 2013 to June 2014. James produced his daily reports without fail - except for the small matter in April 2014 of emergency surgery for appendicitis. We were expecting a recovery time of weeks at least, but James was back in court within days. He was committed, determined and exceptional in his work.
James died on October 29, 2023, almost exactly 10 years to the day the phone-hacking trial beginning. Despite being diagnosed with cancer in that same year - it wasn’t curable, but it was treatable - James went on after the trial to cover many other major legal cases, disrupting the order of things yet again by using crowdfunding as a method of covering his costs.
James was an unintentional trailblazer who never lost sight of his goal: to offer the public a fresh, open, accessible way of witnessing the administration of justice. He will be missed.