“George Pell media contempt case could have ‘chilling effect’ on open justice, court hears” & related articles

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ABC News

16 April 2019    Updated

Newspaper headlines including "Censored", "It's the nation's biggest story" and "Why media can't report on a high-profile case". Photo: Headlines published about the outcome of George Pell’s first trial which did not name him. (ABC News)

Related Story: Ray Hadley, Deborah Knight among 36 journalists and news agencies named in Pell contempt filing

Related Story: Pell abused two choirboys. One of them didn’t live to see justice

Lawyers for 36 Australian news organisations and journalists accused of committing contempt of court over their coverage of Cardinal George Pell‘s sex abuse trial have told a hearing the case could have a “chilling effect” on open justice.

Key points:

  • Barrister Matt Collins called for more detail about the offences, calling some “unsound”
  • He said the case was the first of its kind in Australian legal history
  • The prosecutor has agreed to file a more detailed statement of claim outlining the specific allegations

The news outlets and individuals, including the editors of The Age and Herald Sun newspapers, are accused of breaching a suppression order which banned reporting on Cardinal Pell’s first trial until the conclusion of a planned second trial, involving another set of charges, which was subsequently dropped.

Barrister Matt Collins QC, representing the accused media, told the first hearing of the case in the Victorian Supreme Court that prosecutors needed to provide more detail about how it was alleged the offences were committed, dismissing some of them as “unsound”.

“These are not garden variety contempt, we can find no precedent for charges of this kind,” Dr Collins said.

“None of the publications or broadcasts even named Cardinal Pell or identified the charges of which he was found guilty.

“There are simply no cases of which we are aware in Australia where media organisations, editors or journalists have been charged, much less found guilty of contempt in circumstances such as these.”

Some international news outlets, which operate outside the Victorian County Court’s jurisdiction, reported last December that Cardinal George Pell had been found guilty of child sex offences.

Deborah Knight and Ray Hadley sit in different studios. Photo: Channel Nine presenter Deborah Knight and 2GB radio host Ray Hadley are among those accused of contempt. (Channel Nine/2GB)

That coverage was followed by some local news outlets, including the major newspapers, who published cryptic articles which did not mention Pell by name and left out other key details.

They included The Age, which reported “a very high-profile figure was convicted on Tuesday of a serious crime, but we are unable to report their identity due to a suppression order”.

If the journalists accused of committing contempt of court are found guilty, they face possible terms of imprisonment, fines and conviction.

Dr Collins said that could have a “chilling effect” on open justice.

He also told the hearing they could not properly understand the case against the journalists and media outlets as some of the allegations were not made in specific terms and some individuals were simply named because of their job descriptions, for example as an editor, without detailing their alleged wrongdoing.

Dr Collins also argued the allegation some of the journalists had aided and abetted overseas media in committing contempt could not have occurred as international outlets published stories about the trial before local organisations.

“That is an offence that is unknown to the law and unsound as a matter of principle,” he said.

Prosecutor Stephen O’Meara QC agreed to file a more detailed statement of claim to outline the specific allegations.

Justice John Dixon said the question in his mind was whether the case should be heard as a single trial, 36 separate trials or “something in-between”.

Dr Collins said that would become clearer once prosecutors had set out the allegations in greater detail.

The case will return to court on June 26 for another directions hearing.

The 36 respondents include:

  • The Herald and Weekly Times Pty Ltd
  • Damon Johnston
  • Charis Chang
  • News Life Media Pty Ltd
  • Queensland Newspapers Pty Ltd
  • Sam Weir
  • The Geelong Advertiser Pty Ltd
  • Andrew Piva
  • Nationwide News Pty Ltd
  • Ben English
  • Lachlan Hastings
  • Advertiser Newspapers Pty Ltd
  • Michael Owen-Brown
  • Fairfax Media Limited
  • The Age Company Pty Ltd
  • Alex Lavelle
  • Ben Woodhead
  • Patrick O’Neil
  • Michael Bachelard
  • Fairfax Media Publications Pty Ltd
  • Lisa Davies
  • Michael Stutchbury
  • Patrick Durkin
  • Danielle Cronin
  • Franziska Rimrod
  • Mamamia.com.au
  • Jessica Chambers
  • Allure Media Pty Ltd
  • Simon Thomsen
  • Macquarie Media Limited
  • Chris Smith
  • Ray Hadley
  • Nine Entertainment Co Pty Ltd
  • Lara Vella
  • Christine Ahern
  • Deborah Knight


Lawyers for media in Australian court

CANBERRA, Australia — Dozens of high-profile Australian journalists and major media organizations were represented by lawyers in a court Monday on charges relating to breaches of a gag order on reporting about Cardinal George Pell’s convictions for sexually molesting two choirboys.

Reporting in any format accessible from Australia about the former Vatican economy chief’s convictions in a Melbourne court in December was banned by a judge’s suppression order that was not lifted until February.Such suppression orders are common in the Australian and British judicial systems, and breaches can result in jail terms. But the international interest in a criminal trial with global ramifications has highlighted the difficulty in enforcing such orders in the digital world.

Lawyers representing 23 journalists, producers and broadcasters as well as 13 media organizations that employ them appeared in the Victoria state Supreme Court for the first time on charges including breaching the suppression order and sub judice contempt, which is the publishing of material that could interfere with the administration of justice. Some are also charged with scandalizing the court by undermining public confidence in the judiciary as well as aiding and abetting foreign media outlets in breaching the suppression order.

Media lawyer Matthew Collins told the court that convictions could have a chilling effect on open justice in Australia. He described the prosecutions as unprecedented under Australian law.

Justice John Dixon urged lawyers to consider whether all 36 people and companies would face a single trial or whether there should be 36 trials.

He ordered prosecutors to file detailed statements of claim against all those charged by May 20 and defense lawyers to file responses by June 21.

The parties must return to court for the next preliminary hearing on June 26.

As soon as Pell was convicted on Dec. 11 of oral rape and indecent acts involving two 13-year-old boys while he was archbishop of Melbourne in the 1990s, news began to spread around the world on social media. Collins told the court that Australian media did not name Pell or say what he had been convicted of.

Pell was sentenced on March 13 to six years in prison. He must serve a minimum of 3 years and 8 months before he is eligible for parole. He is to appeal his convictions in June.

A Section on 04/16/2019

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