I meet Joshua Rozenberg at The Bridge Bar in Gray’s Inn – just across the square from the top floor flat where he and his columnist wife, Melanie Phillips, live.
Though not a member of the bar, the solicitor turned legal hack, is entitled to live in the Inn that made him an honorary bencher.
His former BBC and Guardian chum, Marcel Berlins, whom he admires as a ‘pioneer of legal journalism’ is a bencher of one of the other Inns too.
After taking a law degree at Wadham College, Oxford, Rozenberg trained as a solicitor at Dixon Ward on leafy Richmond Green. He recalls it being ‘very nice – pleasant, charming, a very traditional firm’.
After completing his articles, but before finishing the Law Society’s exams, he found himself applying and being accepted on a journalists’ training scheme at the BBC – after a friend who worked in the Beeb’s appointments department initially suggested that Melanie apply.
‘We were young and care free in those days and I thought it would be rather fun. It sounded very glamorous and said candidates will be required to take a voice test,’ he recalls.
‘To my surprise I was interviewed and to my amazement I was offered a place on the scheme, which I hadn’t intended at all’.
That was the winter of 1974 and he had to make a decision that altered the course of his life.
‘There were two options – either you stay in the law and your future is fairly predictable. Or you give up the law and join the BBC and you’ve no idea what’s going to happen to you.
‘I rationalised that if I didn’t take the job I’d been offered, I would always wonder what would have happened if I had. By taking it I would find out’.
So he took it and in 1975 joined the BBC. ‘I did 10 years in various sorts of journalism and then in 1984/5 they wanted someone to specialise in law and present Law in Action. I was in the right place at the right time and I stayed there until 2000.
He chose for law in the first place, he quips, because ‘I hadn’t done badly at it at school — because we didn’t do law at school’.
More practically, he saw it as a vocational subject that had the possibility of leading to a professional qualification.
Despite living at the heart of the bar and commentating on the law – for among others the BBC, Telegraph, Guardian and Sky — for 40 years, Rozenberg says he sees himself as ‘very much outside’ the legal profession.
He has never joined the Law Society and states he would not want to, though his name does appear on the Roll.
‘I hope that hasn’t given me membership of the Law Society because I wouldn’t choose to join the Law Society’.
It is, he explains, not because of any particular animus towards Chancery Lane. ‘I try not to join any organisations, particularly ones I’m writing about.
‘So I don’t sign petitions, I don’t join organisations like Justice or Liberty, and I try as far as possible to remain above the fray’.
Though, he adds, there are exceptions as he is a trustee of the Kalisher Trust, which supports aspiring barristers, and about which he has written.
As an outsider looking into the profession, Rozenberg observes a mismatch between the reality of the legal world and public’s perception of lawyers – which he notes has proved ‘tricky’ to align.
He recalls a family barrister, who acts for parents whose children often end up being taken into care, telling him how his clients assume that he, the barrister, is in league with the courts and the judges, rather than being on their side.
‘You can see how it looks like that from their (the client’s) point of view,’ says Rozenberg.
‘If you’re a working class person — if you think such a distinction still exists — you might think that lawyers are middle class. And if you are a very disadvantaged person, then it’s going to be quite difficult for you to believe that lawyers are actually interested in their clients’.
Busting the myth that all lawyers are fat cats is particularly tricky. ‘The public still to some extent has the myth that lawyers are very wealthy. To some extent, compared with the public, they are and some are very wealthy.
‘And it’s difficult for legal aid lawyers to persuade people that they’re really not paid very much at all’.
During the protests over legal aid cuts, Rozenberg observes there wasn’t an obvious trick that lawyers missed to win the public’s hearts and minds. Rather he suggests, the public just didn’t understand the risks to the system.
‘And however strong your case is, it’s very difficult to shift public attitudes and the perception that lawyers are wealthy and just in it for themselves, particularly when you have a government which is determined to exploit popular misconceptions’.
Plus, the splits that emerged between the various representative groups, the rank and file members and the difference in emphasis between barristers and solicitors, he suggests, contributed to the difficulty of getting the message across.
Despite the public’s view of lawyers, Rozenberg agrees there is a fascination for the law, which he puts down to the drama inherent in some of the problems that lawyers deal with.
But he notes how that interest has diminished compared with the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
‘If you ask a member of the public to name a lawyer in this country, I wonder who they would name,’ he questions. To the suggestion that they might plump for Amal Clooney or Cherie Blair, Rozenberg notes that neither has appeared in court very much in this country.
He suggests folk might name Michael Mansfield QC or the late George Carman QC, before comparing it with the situation he has read about from times past when people used to queue up to hear advocates in criminal trials in the Old Bailey.
‘Barristers would have the histrionics and tell the jury ‘look at this wretched woman — God never gave her a chance, will you?’
The press, he says, would take down every word and write long reports that would be read avidly.
‘All that’s gone,’ he says, adding that advocates are ‘less colourful, but probably more shrewd and skilful now, and less given to histrionics’.
Newspapers, he says don’t want long court reports that the public don’t want to read and so the number of court reporters has declined. Rather, papers want human interest stories, favouring high profile criminal trials rather than the finer points of law.
He rates the standard of legal journalism as ‘very good’ but is concerned by the falling number of legal specialists. He is however ‘very encouraged’ by the recent launch of the free daily legal bulletin, The Brief, launched recently by The Times – ‘anything that encourages and supports legal journalism is great’.
Since he started covering the law in 1984, much has changed – with the passing of the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990, which broadened solicitors’ rights of audience and the Legal Services Act 2007, which introduced new business structures and allowed non-lawyers to own law firms.
‘The profession as a whole is now much more aware of the need to justify its existence to the public,’ with all main branches employing ‘significant public relations departments’ to help get their messages across.
He recalls the attitude of many at the bar when reforms were mooted in the late 1980s. ‘Their response was “but there’s been a review of the bar recently by someone very distinguished – Benson was his name – he says there’s nothing to worry about”’.
The comment referred to the Royal Commission on Legal Services, set up by Harold Wilson’s Labour government and chaired by Sir Henry Benson.
The professions, he says, now realise that they have to change and be more competitive. Regulation, he states, is an issue that the profession still needs to grapple with.
The problem and the move away from self-regulation, he recalls, started because the Law Society did not deal with complaints properly.
The Society, he says, was acting with a vested interest. ‘It was acting in the interest of its members rather than in the interests of the public, which I suppose is what the members wanted and expected’.
But, he suggests, if they’d taken the long view and realised that it needed a really rigorous way of dealing with complaints, self-regulation may not have been lost in the way that it has been.
Just as the legal profession has changed, the job of a journalist has changed too, he observes. Journalists now have to compete ‘with lawyers who do what can only be described as legal journalism – the bloggers’.
‘They were very good and still are’ and he thought if you can’t beat them, join them.
Says Rozenberg: ‘It initially seemed a bit odd that I was offering stories to the world on twitter, but I began to realise this was the game we’re now in’.
There is, he notes, also now a huge amount of information available online, that was simply not there when he started out.
‘When I first started covering the European Court of Human Rights the press pack would have to go to Strasbourg to pick up the judgments,’ he recalls.
‘In those days newspapers could afford to send journalists abroad to cover important stories, paying their travel, accommodation and their meals on duty.’
Then Strasbourg heard about the invention of the fax machine and so the trips to Strasbourg are no longer necessary.
His appointment as the first specialist legal correspondent at the BBC in 1984, he recalls, coincided with the appointment of the very first press officer for the Lord Chancellor’s Department (now the Ministry of Justice).
‘He would send you press releases by post and, if there was something urgent, he would call you or send a fax. But you needed to know him to be on his mailing list’.
Nowadays, the MoJ has more than 30 press officers and he says, in principle, all its press releases are online for anybody to see – you don’t have to be a journalist.
And that, he adds, means they are designed more for the general reader and not so much help. Despite the availability of online information, he insists, there are still things can only be done in person – such as press conferences.
‘Not that the Ministry of Justice has had any press conferences for several years,’ he notes, speculating that Lord Chancellor, Michael Gove, might call one when he launches his British Bill of Rights.
The law has naturally formed a large part of his journalistic career. The first story he covered at the BBC, he recalls, was the 1984/5 miners strike, which involved a lot of law.
‘It was the last occasion on which the survival of the government depended on law. Thatcher was in dispute with the miners and she and the coal board were using legal weapons to crush Scargill’s NUM.
‘All sorts of incredibly obscure legal devices popped up and needed explaining,’ from the role of sequestrators to the function of the Official Solicitor.
One of the stories that he enjoyed most, was his last big gog, shortly before leaving the BBC — the case of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
‘That had some extraordinary developments of which the classic was the House of Lords, as the final court of appeal, having to revisit one of its own decisions,’ after one law lord was found to have had an interest in the case, due to his links with Amnesty International, which had intervened in the matter.
Recalls Rozenberg: ‘It was deeply embarrassing for the highest court in the land in an international case, and led to the end of the system whereby the most senior [by age] law lord became the senior law lord’.
Both law and journalism, he notes, can be performed by non-experts and increasingly elements can be done by computers but, he asserts, skilled people will always be required to do both.
Of the two jobs, it is naturally journalism that he favours and he has no regrets about not continuing his legal career.
‘Journalism is good fun and one of the advantages of journalism over law is that you never have any clients.’
As a lawyer, he explains, if you get something wrong, the client suffers. ‘With journalism if you get it wrong, it’s damaging to you, you may be sued, you may be embarrassed, but it’s not going to change the world.’