Media Says Breaches in the Pell Case Were at ‘low’ End
By Melissa Iaria
NCA NewsWire via Gold Coast Bulletin
February 17, 2021
A Supreme Court judge has reserved his decision on what penalties to impose on Australian news outlets that pleaded guilty to breaching suppression orders over George Pell’s child sex abuse conviction, of which he was later cleared.
Victorian Supreme Court Justice John Dixon on Wednesday adjourned a penalty hearing to a date to be fixed, after hearing submissions from prosecutors and news outlets on what action he should take.
Fourteen outlets, including entities owned by News Corp Australia and Nine, pleaded guilty earlier this month to contempt by breaching the order.
The prosecution argued the non-publication orders prevented any reporting on Pell’s 2018 trial because it could have affected the jury in his forthcoming second trial, which was later dropped.
None of the outlets named Cardinal Pell or identified his charges at a time his guilty conviction was being reported around the world, but did refer to the conviction of a high profile Australian.
The high-ranking Catholic, a former adviser to Pope Francis, was eventually acquitted on appeal to the High Court.
|Cardinal Pell in Rome after his acquittal. Photo: Stefano Costantino / MEGA TheMegaAgency.com|
Justice Dixon was told on Wednesday the media breaches should be considered at the “low end”.
Dr Matt Collins, acting for Nine/Fairfax outlets, submitted a conviction and single fine in the “middle of the range” would be an appropriate penalty for The Age, which published articles and an editorial about the Pell case.
He also said the fact the publication only had six prior contempt convictions in more than 100 years of history spoke to its credit.
Dr Collins urged Justice Dixon not to record a conviction against the other outlets he was representing -- including Mamamia, Business Insider, Radio 2GB and the Today show -- for the breaches, arguing for only “modest” fines.
Victoria’s Director of Public Prosecutions has sought heavy fines and convictions for the breaches, alleging outlets took a calculated risk by publishing and broadcasting the reports, despite obtaining legal advice.
Roslyn Kaye, for the DPP, asked Justice Dixon to view this as an aggravating factor when deciding on penalty.
|Victoria’s Supreme Court will hand down its ruling at a date to be fixed. Photo: NCA NewsWire / David Geraghty|
The court has heard that in recent similar cases, media penalties for contempt ranged from $10,000-$300,000, but none involved not naming the accused or their charges.
The most serious case was Yahoo!7, which was convicted and fined $300,000 for contempt over its report on a criminal trial that contained information the jury was not told and was prejudicial to the accused.
But it differed to the Pell case because the breach happened mid-trial, affecting the victim’s family, witnesses, the accused and jury, Dr Collins said.
The trial also had to be aborted at substantial public cost.
Media outlets have entered guilty pleas to a total 21 charges as part of a deal with the DPP to drop dozens of charges against individual journalists and editors, who faced potentially severe penalties, including jail, if convicted.
All media companies have agreed to pay a contribution towards the DPP’s costs of $650,000 as part of the plea deal.
|Cardinal George Pell, right, outside the County Court where he was tried. Photo: Con CHRONIS / AFP)|
The material was published or broadcast in the Herald Sun, Weekly Times, news.com.au, the Courier Mail, Geelong Advertiser, Daily Telegraph, The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Australian Financial Review, Mamamia, Business Insider, Radio 2GB Sydney and the Today Show.
The companies that have pleaded guilty included News Corporation’s The Herald and Weekly Times, NewsLifeMedia, Queensland Newspapers, Geelong Advertiser, Nationwide News and Advertiser Newspapers, as well as The Age, Fairfax Media Publications, Mamamia, Allure Media and Radio 2GB Sydney and General Television Corporation.
When the DPP first began its case it alleged 211 charges against 36 news outlets, editors and journalists but the number was whittled down over time as some charges were dropped.
Cardinal Pell was cleared of abusing two choirboys by the High Court and immediately freed from jail in April last year after spending 13 months in jail.
News Corp Australia is the owner of NCA NewsWire.