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George Pell media contempt case could have 'chilling effect' on open justice, court hears

ABC News logo ABC News 15/04/2019 By court reporter Emma Younger
Headlines published about the outcome of George Pell's first trial which did not name him. © Provided by ABC News Headlines published about the outcome of George Pell's first trial which did not name him.

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.

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.

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

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