The Victoria State Supreme Court has imposed fines of close to two million dollars on a dozen Australian media organizations for contempt of court, following the coverage of Cardinal George Pell’s first conviction.
On June 4, 2021, Justice John Dixon of the Supreme Court of Victoria ruled that the twelve media organizations had “usurped” the role of the tribunal by violating an “order revoking the conviction” of Cardinal Pell for sexual abuse of children.
This provision of law prohibits the publication of a court judgment. Cardinal Pell was convicted of child sexual abuse in December 2018, but that verdict could not be released because the senior prelate was facing a second trial on other allegations.
This second trial did not take place, after the charges were dropped in February 2019. The suppression order was lifted after the second trial was quashed. As a reminder, the first conviction was overturned unanimously by the High Court of the State of Victoria in 2020.
The Melbourne newspaper The Age received the heaviest penalty, at $450,000; News Corp News.com.au will have to pay $400,000. Nine other newspapers $162,000, while the Today Show was fined $30,000.
According to Justice Dixon, the media “took it upon themselves” to decide “where the balance ought to lie” between Cardinal Pell’s right to a fair trial and the public’s right to know. In other words, they decided to violate the right to the presumption of innocence for a suspect already convicted in a previous trial.
Justice Dixon “rejected the media companies’ submission that the breaches of the suppression order was due to ‘an honest but mistaken belief that their reporting would not contravene the order.’”
Instead he found that in most cases the reporting demonstrated that the companies “disagreed with the suppression order, and contended… that the media should not be restrained from reporting the outcome of the trial.”
The twelve media companies had already pleaded guilty to contempt of court, and agreed to pay $650,000 to cover the prosecution's legal costs. The total sums paid by the media will thus reach 1.7 million dollars.
Dixon reserved his harshest judgment for The Age and news.com.au, whose articles, he said, “constituted a blatant and willful defiance of the court’s authority.” He specifically targeted The Age saying that the publications “amounted to a contempt of the most grave kind,” and “challenged, and carried the potential to diminish the court’s authority and standing.”
In February 14 news outlets pleaded guilty to 21 contempt charges. The companies apologized and agreed to pay $650,000 to cover the prosecution's legal costs.
In his judgment, Mr. Dixon said he took the “sincere and unreserved apology” to the court into account but said the “timing” of the apology, “did not demonstrate any significant degree of remorse and contrition,” and that it has been “entered to protect their individual journalist, presenter and editor employees from conviction on the contempt charges they separately faced.”