Hefty fines for Aussie media over Pell trial reporting

The Catholic Leader [Archdiocese of Brisbane, Australia]

June 7, 2021

By Mark Bowling

VICTORIA’S Supreme Court has fined some of Australia’s biggest newspapers, websites and radio stations $1.1 million for their coverage of Cardinal George Pell’s now-overturned conviction in a sexual abuse case.

In all, 12 media groups admitted breaching a legal order in 2018 banning them from reporting the verdict at the time.

Justice John Dixon rejected arguments that their news reports – even though they did not name Cardinal Pell – were in the public interest.

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, was fined about $430,000, for its reports on its news.com.au site, The Daily Telegraph and other newspapers, while Nine Entertainment, publisher of The Age newspaper and owner of Channel Nine, was fined over A$600,000 for its stories.

The Australian Financial Review received a $162,000 fine, and Nine’s Today Show received a $30,000 fine.

The reporting ban – enforced through a legal order – was introduced at the start of Cardinal Pell’s 2018 trial to prevent the possibility of prejudice affecting a separate trial he was to face on other charges.

The suppression order banned journalists from reporting any detail of the sexual abuse case, including his conviction when it was ruled by a jury in December 2018.

The High Court of Australia later overturned the guilty verdict against Cardinal Pell on appeal.

Final say: The High Court of Australia overturned the guilty verdict against Cardinal Pell on appeal

The suppression order was later lifted in February 2019. But several outlets published reports referring to his case shortly after his conviction.

Much of that coverage in December 2018 criticised the secrecy of the case without specifically naming Cardinal Pell, Australia’s  highest-ranking Catholic, previously a senior Vatican figure and a close adviser to the Pope.

The Australian public had access to front page newspaper headlines that included the following three: “Nation’s biggest story: The story we can’t report”, “Secret scandal. It’s Australia’s biggest story” and “A high-profile person found guilty of a terrible crime. The world is reading about it but we can’t tell you a word.”

Justice Dixon ruled media that had breached the ban “usurped the function of the court in protection of the proper administration of justice”.

“In doing so media respondents… took it upon themselves to determine where the balance ought to lie between Pell’s right to a fair second trial… and the public’s right to know,” a summary of the court judgement read.

Justice Dixon also said editorial attacks on the suppression order – from news.com.au and The Age newspaper “in particular constituted a blatant and wilful defiance of the court’s authority as each took a deliberate risk by intentionally advancing a collateral attack on the role of suppression orders in Victoria’s criminal justice system.”

Other outlets fined and receiving smaller penalties included The Herald Sun, The Courier Mail, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian Financial Review, news sites Mamamia and Business Insider, radio station 2GB as well as the Channel Nine TV network.

In February, the media outlets pleaded guilty to breaching the contempt of court charges. Prosecutors dropped charges against 15 individual journalists.