Quoted by Financial Review, ‘Media companies fined $1.1m for Pell coverage’

  • Michael Douglas

Press/Media: Press / Media

Period4 Jun 2021

Media coverage


Media coverage

  • TitleQuoted by Financial Review, ‘Media companies fined $1.1m for Pell coverage'
    Media name/outletFinancial Review
    DescriptionFourteen of Australia’s largest media outlets have been fined more than $1.1 million for contempt of court in coverage of the initial child sex abuse charges against Cardinal George Pell, prompting calls for reform to Victoria’s broad media suppression laws.

    The publications, which include The Australian Financial Review, pleaded guilty in February to breaching a suppression order by publishing information about Cardinal Pell’s conviction in December 2018. The cardinal’s conviction was later overturned.

    County Court Judge Peter Kidd had banned publication of Cardinal Pell’s name after the conviction in case it compromised a second case against the Catholic church leader. That case was later dropped.

    Australian media, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, did not name Cardinal Pell but their coverage said a high-profile person had been convicted of a serious crime but their identity had been suppressed.

    Handing down the penalty on Friday, Victoria Supreme Court Justice John Dixon said the publications “each took a calculated risk” in their coverage and rejected their claims that “their reporting was due to an honest belief that they weren’t breaching the order”.

    Slamming some of the publications’ decisions to run stories about the case as “blatant and wilful defiance of the court”, the judge said they diminished the “purpose and efficacy” of the suppression order.

    “In doing so, the media respondents usurped the function of the court in protecting the proper administration of justice and took it upon themselves to determine where the balance lay between Pell’s right to a fair second trial ... and the public’s right to know what happened in the [first] trial,” he said.

    “The potential for harm at the time of publication was very real, running as far as the possibility that further prosecution of Pell after the cathedral trial would not have been possible.”

    He also said the decision to publish the articles in spite of the order formed, in some instances, “a collateral attack” on the court’s authority: “The content illustrated in most cases that the media publications disagreed with the suppression order.“

    But former NSW Bar Association and Law Council of Australia President Arthur Moses, SC, said the case reinforced the need for a review of Victoria’s infamously tough suppression laws.

    “We have open courts to ensure there is public scrutiny so abuses do not flourish and to maintain confidence in the justice system,” Mr Moses said.

    “Suppression orders should not be made except in extraordinary circumstances ... and my concern is whether our laws strike the right balance between open justice and the need for suppression to ensure the administration of justice.”

    He called for a “careful review” of such laws to both ensure this balance was struck and that suppression laws were consistent across Australian jurisdictions.

    Mr Moses said the global nature of digital publishing – overseas outlets such as The Washington Post published Cardinal Pell’s name at the time of the conviction as they were not bound by the suppression order – also meant these rules needed a rethink.

    “Any journalist sitting in an Australian courtroom is in a better position to report fairly on what is happening within that courtroom than one in a newsroom overseas that may not have that knowledge and understanding.

    “In the age of digital communication and globalisation of media, uniformity of suppression orders across Australia needs to be considered and we need to recalibrate that balance.”

    Labelling the penalties as “harsh but not unexpected”, University of Western Australia media law academic Michael Douglas added that this international aspect meant he could “understand where these media organisations were coming from” in running the coverage.

    “They are operating in a global media market. Pell was being reported in the international press; the story was trending on platforms like Twitter,” Mr Douglas said.

    “But this case is as much about the future as it is about Pell’s case, in that the [court] decided the media needed reminding that just because the nature of journalism is changing, doesn’t mean the law will.”

    Michael Stutchbury, the Financial Review’s editor-in-chief, said the judgment did not reflect the fact that the rise of digital publishing had permanently changed how news was reported globally and on social media.

    “In no way did the Financial Review believe at the time that our reporting would amount to a breach of any suppression order. We did not name Cardinal Pell nor provide clues to identify him,” he said.

    “This is a case where the judiciary seems to pretend that the internet and social media do not exist and, hence, that it can keep trying to regulate and punish traditional publishers like it has since the age of the printing press.

    “Traditional publishers have been punished for reporting much less than was widely available on social media and accessible on foreign new websites.”

    While some of the individuals who posted George Pell’s name on Twitter following the conviction were initially sent letters warning them of possible prosecution, Australia’s leading defamation academic, David Rolph, said the decision to prosecute only major publications and journalists ultimately came down to “an exercise in prosecutorial discretion”.

    The convictions follow guilty pleas in February from the news outlets to a combined 21 charges of contempt of court, in a deal with the Victorian prosecutor that also saw charges against 15 individuals, including Mr Stutchbury and the Financial Review’s Melbourne bureau chief, Patrick Durkin, dropped.

    Outlets that pleaded guilty included the Financial Review, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, the Herald Sun, The Daily Telegraph, The Weekly Times, the Geelong Advertiser, Adelaide’s The Advertiser, Business Insider, Mamamia, Radio 2GB and Nine News.

    The Age and news.com copped two of the biggest fines, at $450,000 and $400,000 respectively, while the Financial Review was fined $160,000. Some publications were fined just $1000. The publications also have to collectively foot $650,000 in the prosecutor’s legal costs.

    Justice Dixon said he gave “significant weight” to the need for specific and general deterrence when slugging The Age, News.com and the Financial Review with the biggest fines, saying the most senior editors at these publications considered the risks associated with pushing ahead with publication and did so anyway.

    Professor Rolph said media outlets had the right to “push the envelope” on these decisions but needed to expect consequences for doing so.

    “In deciding the penalty, the court considers the need to punish, prior history, the harm to the administration of justice by undermining the authority of the court.”

    Judge Kidd dropped the suppression order in February 2019 when the second case against Cardinal Pell was discontinued, allowing the publications to report on the previous convictions.

    Those convictions, which initially landed the cardinal in jail, were ultimately overturned by the High Court last year.
    Producer/AuthorHannah Wootton
    PersonsMichael Douglas