Dozens of journalists accused of breaking Pell suppression order face possible jail terms

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Prosecutors send letters to up to 50 editors and reporters at News Corp, ABC and others

The Guardian

Tue 26 Feb 2019 Last modified on Tue 26 Feb 2019

The Herald Sun’s front page after the George Pell verdict in December

The front page of Melbourne’s Herald Sun after the George Pell verdict in December. As many as 5o journalists have been asked why they broke the court’s suppression order

Dozens of journalists have been threatened with a charge of contempt of court – and could face possible jail terms – over reporting of the Cardinal George Pell trial.

Victoria’s director of public prosecutions, Kerri Judd QC, has written to as many as 50 individual publishers, editors, broadcasters, reporters and subeditors at the media giants News Corp Australia, Nine Entertainment, the ABC, Crikey and several smaller publications, accusing them of breaching a nationwide suppression order imposed during the case.

Show-cause notices were sent to the journalists in early February saying that they had potentially interfered with the administration of justice and scandalised the court.

The ones who do not have a strong enough explanation could be prosecuted.

The suppression order was issued by the chief judge of Melbourne’s county court, Peter Kidd, on 25 June 2018 in the matter of DPP v George Pell. The prosecution had applied for the suppression order to prevent “a real and substantial risk of prejudice to the proper administration of justice” because Pell originally was to face a second trial on separate charges.

But when the guilty verdict came down in December, some international media outlets – who were unlikely to have been in court – published or broadcast the news. These international outlets included the Daily Beast, CNN, the Washington Post and several Catholic websites.

“Cardinal George Pell has been found guilty in Australia of charges related to sexual abuse, according to two people familiar with the case and other media reports, becoming the highest-ranking Vatican official to face such a conviction,” the Washington Post reported on 12 December. Many of the articles were later removed.

Some local media followed suit, publishing articles which Kidd said raised a question of whether they were aimed at putting “inappropriate pressure on him” – even though these were vague and did not mention Pell’s name or the verdict.

The outlets which published or broadcast pieces in relation to the trial included the Herald Sun, the Age, Macquarie Media, Nine News in Melbourne, an ABC radio program outside Melbourne and News Corp’s the Australian. Private Media’s Crikey website published a wrap of how the newspapers covered the Pell verdict, with snapshots of the front pages. The small website alone received four letters from the DPP.

The Herald Sun published the most dramatic piece: a black front page with the word CENSORED in large white letters. “The world is reading a very important story that is relevant to Victorians,” the page one editorial said. “The Herald Sun is prevented from publishing details of this very significant news. But trust us, it’s a story you deserve to read.”

A group of eight court reporters who attended both Pell trials every day, who included journalists from Guardian Australia and ABC News, did not breach the suppression order.

Judd asked some recipients of the letter to reply by 15 February as to why they should not be charged with contempt of court. All the publications which referenced the Pell case, even obliquely, were targeted because there was a blanket suppression on any information about the case, including that there was a suppression order.

Some of the alleged breaches were considered to be more flagrant than others. As many as 20 people at the Herald Sun and the Age received letters – even those who were not involved or who were not working on the day.

When the judge was made aware of the breaches he told a closed court they were of a serious nature and certain editors faced imprisonment.

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