ABC court reporter Jamelle Wells visits Dubbo, discusses incredible career in journalism

EXPLORING DUBBO: One of Cobar's best known exports Jamelle Wells is planning on writing another book and she said it could focus on cases heard in country courts. Photo: BELINDA SOOLE
EXPLORING DUBBO: One of Cobar's best known exports Jamelle Wells is planning on writing another book and she said it could focus on cases heard in country courts. Photo: BELINDA SOOLE

Seeing a stranger swing a samurai sword around in your driveway is the last thing most people would expect when coming home after a day at work.

For veteran ABC journalist Jamelle Wells it was the real deal and a life changing one at that.

"A fellow, who became obsessed with the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), when I was covering all those inquiries into Wollongong council, found out where I lived," she says.

"He would stick little notes on my door with hot tips about ICAC.

"At first I thought it was funny and then the frequency of the notes increased.

"He would buzz my intercom at night.

"One day I pulled into my driveway and he was swinging this samurai sword around... I just reversed up the driveway and called the police."

Speaking to the Daily Liberal during a visit to Dubbo to promote her memoir, Ms Wells says the stalker situation completely changed her view of the legal system.

"I had to stand beside him in Balmain Local Court and it was actually quite scary because I thought 'here's this man who could be dangerous and I have to stand here with him and talk to the Magistrate'.

"He annoyed the magistrate so much that day, police had asked for an apprehended violence order (AVO) for one year but she enforced it for two.

"As we left he was arguing with court officers saying he was going to go to the High Court and saying 'this didn't happen the last time somebody took an AVO out [against him]' so he obviously had a history.

"It made me realise for the first time, why a lot of people drop domestic violence and assault type matters. Because it's just very traumatic for them to have to actually take them to court.

"You're having all these details about yourself exposed to strangers everywhere."

Seeing so much tragedy and heartache on a daily basis challenges court reporters, but Ms Wells says a mix of sensible strategies and loyal supporters are what helps her.

"'A sense of humour is very important and the ability to switch off at the end of the day," she believes.

"I have a friend and family support base who have nothing to do with the law or courts, which is really helpful.

"Sometimes they'll be interested but other times they'll say 'enough, enough, no more'."

Ms Wells says more than a decade of watching the highs and mostly lows that play out in courts makes her more grateful for the life she is fortunate enough to lead.

"I feel a lot of gratitude... that my own life is simple and uncomplicated," she says.

"We have it tough as court reporters but then I think our job's easy compared to the judges and police and lawyers. They're the ones who are really dealing with the hard stuff everyday.

"We're just reporting on what we hear and what we see."

Keeping the community informed of how the law is applied and the consequences of breaking the law is something Ms Wells takes pride in.

"We have a principle of open justice and our role as journalists is to be the eyes and ears of the general public when we're in a courtroom," she feels.

"People like to know that the justice system is working. There are times when it isn't and they like to hear what's going on in a courtroom so they can make up their minds about that."

Ms Wells encourages anyone with the time, to stop into their local court and watch proceedings.

"Sit in a public gallery for a day or two. You would be surprised how many people have never been in a courtroom and they're very quick to criticise.

"They go 'oh that judge is too soft or too hard' or 'why didn't that person get locked up' or 'why did they get bail'.

"But the judges have laws and criteria they have to adhere to when they're sentencing people so not everyone understands that and I think they're too quick to lay the blame.

"I think it would be good for everyone to spend some time in the public gallery and watch the court in action."

Ms Wells says in bigger courts in Sydney, there are community members that sit in courts because for all the seriousness, courts are often entertaining than mainstream media.

"In my job I encounter court watchers all the time, some of them are retirees. They know more about cases than the media.

"They say things like 'why would I want to be home or go to the movies, courts are so much more entertaining and they're free'.

"Court watchers are a microcosm of life in the courtroom."

Ms Wells recently reported on the Geoffrey Rush defamation action against the Daily Telegraph and says while there are many constants in the world of crime and court reporting, change has been occurring.

"One thing I have noticed is that there are a lot more defamation cases.

"Defamation laws in Australia are about to be reviewed and I think that's partly because it's perceived to be easy to get a defamation case going."

She says "there's more transparency about domestic violence and child sex offence cases now".

"There are a lot of things we can't report but I think the courts have made more of an effort to make things available to the media, to let us sit in on a lot of cases, even if we can't name people.

"And the courts have now got media liaison staff who help us get exhibits and photos and recordings that are tendered during cases."

Getting court stories right and simply explaining convoluted and complex cases are some of the biggest challenges most court reporters face, Ms Wells says.

"There's so much pressure to get it right, especially when you're starting out. You're really worried that anything you leave out might make a story wrong. You've gotta get every detail.

"But a radio report is 30 seconds, a tv story may be 90, online may be 200 to 300 words. It's hard to condense something so complex.

"If you can distill the essence of what's happened into a few lines, it's really hard."

Concentrating for long periods of time during court proceedings is also a challenge.

"It's hard hearing in the courtroom. I thought my hearing was bad when I first started but it's just the nature of the environment. Often court reporters will lean forward or collude with other journalists to see if they've heard the same things or not.

"It's the one round where concentration is so intense, it's exhausting. Just sitting there for a three hour sitting is tiring. The minute your brain switches off is when you miss something."

"If I'm not sure of something I won't file a story. I will wait and I will ask the prosecutor or the lawyers. Mostly they're helpful, sometimes they're grumpy."

Ms Wells says she loves constantly learning and court reporting is always teaching her something new.

"Everyone thinks they're an expert on court cases but they're not.

"We're not lawyers, although we've done a bit of law as part of our journalism training, we're not experts."

Ms Wells, who grew up in Cobar, says she got into journalism by accident.

"At school I loved debating and books, I was a real nerd. I sat in the library at lunch time with books and drove the librarian mad.

"I studied theatre when I finished school. I was always interested in the arts and performing, but I liked writing as well.

"I started doing community radio when I was at university and doing community theatre."

One of Ms Wells first jobs was presenting a morning program for ABC Radio on the Mid North Coast of NSW.

"Then I came back to Sydney and worked in newsrooms.

"About 15 years ago I came back to the ABC reading the news.

"One of the court reporters moved to Queensland."

After being offered the opportunity to cover high profile ICAC proceedings, Ms Wells was given the court round at the ABC.

"I always had a love of words and writing, and performing and speaking," she says.

"My job now is to do tv, radio and a little bit of online and it sort of uses all those skills."

As a theatre lover, Ms Wells says court reporting is in many ways, a perfect fit for her professionally.

"I love the theatre of courts, it is sometimes far more dramatic than anything you could see in the theatre or on the tv.

"A lot of people perceive court as a very hard round, they'll do it for a couple of years then leave and say it's too intense

"I've had circuit breakers, when our newsreaders are away I fill in. It's good to do something different."

Ms Wells credits her mother Cecilia for inspiring her to write The Court Reporter memoir.

After Cecilia was diagnosed with terminal cancer she stayed with her daughter in Sydney.

"I was covering the Sydney Siege inquest and she was watching me on the tv. She was really anxious. I said 'look mum I don't think you're gonna die tonight, why don't we get in a car and go for a drive.

"So we got in the car and mum looked at me and said 'I'm really proud of you but I've never seen where you work'."

Ms Wells and her mother spent the night driving around all the Sydney court hot spots, from Glebe to King Street and Balmain to Burwood.

"Mum said 'when I die you're gonna be really sad so you should write a book about all the court adventures'.

"When she passed away I thought 'I have to do this, it's my mum' and writing kept me focused in the year after mum passed away."

Ms Wells has signed up to write a second book and she expects it will be focusing on stories from courts closer to her hometown.

"Hopefully I can get out here and hang around the courts," she says.

"My dad lives in Cobar so I come through Dubbo all the time."