The lone wolf in search of a good yarn - that sums up Steve Butcher. As a natural storyteller, Steve couldn’t be better suited to court reporting, and has been doing it now for more than a quarter of a century.
Equal measures of seriousness, humour, and a thirst for the untold story have led to a colourful career that started at the Truth newspaper in 1972. It's culminated in an illustrious and ongoing stint as court reporter at The Age. The key has been a healthy dose of patience.
“I used to think that going to India was the one thing that taught you patience but courts are a fantastic place just to be patient. You can’t make justice move any quicker than it is.”
His success can largely be attributed to chasing stories that others wouldn’t, and telling them in a way that makes them wish they had.
“We all should be striving for different stories because a diversity of news is meant to be to the benefit of all of us. So I’ve tended to be a bit of a lone wolf in courts. I don’t run with the pack.”
With more than 26 years of court reporting experience under his belt, Steve often finds himself playing the role confidant to the many characters within Melbourne's judicial system.
"I'm a big fish in a small pond here in Melbourne. I’ve got a massive advantage over every one else because I’ve been doing it for 26-27 years. Everyone that I met in ‘86 and even before that - junior police and junior lawyers - they’re all in senior positions. I’ve grown up with them.
“It’s hugely helpful. It’s great when a judge tips you off about a story. It’s been a long time coming, but judges and magistrates, people in authority, in positions of influence or power, are realising that they can make some pretty pointed political statements and get their opinion or warning to the community through the power of being on the bench.”
But these relationships aren’t built on experience alone. When it comes to the crunch, people divulge sensitive information to those they trust.
"I've never back flipped anyone and I’ve never breached their confidence. A lot of people trust me. So I’ve got this built-in advantage over people that come in cold to courts. Let’s face it, there’s not a lot of skill in that. I’d be a pretty ordinary journo if after 25 years or so of doing courts I didn’t have pretty good contacts. And I do have great contacts.”
The yarns are certainly plentiful but court reporting isn’t always a simple tale of cops and robbers. Court reporters are required to sit through and digest some very dark, disturbing and often tragic cases. Among the more recent court cases, Steve highlights the Arthur Freeman and Robert Farquharson trials, and the trial of Matthew Johnson.
“A lot of people in and outside newsrooms don’t realise the stress and a lot of the anguish sitting there and listening to it. You are actually in the courtroom seeing someone in the flesh and blood in a witness box, and there’s a huge amount of tragedy and stress. Everyone’s stressed going to court. It’s also stressful for court reporters. And especially younger ones.”
Of course, going to court is even more difficult for those involved: a defendant, a victim, a witness, or a family member.
“I‘m not insensitive for a moment to the fact that everyone is stressed that comes to courts. Reporters have got to take a step back occasionally and remember that these people are under a lot of stress.”
When that stress is directed at court reporters it can get particularly hairy.
“It’s not pleasant when a serious criminal takes a dislike to you.”
Steve says that threats to journalists are commonplace, particularly in police reporting. "John Silvester, I know for a fact in some instances, does get some pretty serious pointed threats. You’ve got to dance on your toes. You’ve got to placate people.”
However, as Steve’s favourite saying goes, “It’s not the death threat that you get that you should worry about, it’s the one you don’t get.”
A highly entertaining and natural 'people person,' Steve finds humour is often what makes the job bearable.
"Give me one fantastically funny, humorous, light-hearted story to a hundred cops and robbers and blood and guts stories. I just love humour. After all these years in courts, humour is the one thing that keeps me going.”
If he hadn’t spent the last quarter century as a court reporter, Steve Butcher says he probably would have tried his hand as a lawyer.
He is emphatic that he “wouldn’t have been a copper” and that he “sat there too often” to have been a crim.
“When you hear those doors creak and those chains tingle... In any jurisdiction, wherever there’s a custody court and you know that somebody is going into custody or coming from there, it’s a reassuring thing knowing you’re not. Because I’d hate to be in jail for one moment. You can imagine what they’d do with a journo in jail."
Looking to the future, Steve plans to stick to what he does best. But there are also plans to write a book detailing his colourful career in courts.
"There will be one book. One book, that's it. And it will be thirty years of court reporting. I tinker with it in my down time in court, I scratch a few ideas down. But it will probably take me ten years to write the thing!"