Pell court breaches cost media $1 million

·3-min read

Media companies will be forced to pay more than $1 million in fines after publishing details of Cardinal George Pell's child sexual abuse convictions, breaching court orders.

Supreme Court Justice John Dixon on Friday blasted a dozen companies for their "blatant and wilful defiance of the court's authority" in banning publication of Cardinal Pell's convictions.

The companies, including The Age, Herald and Weekly Times, Mamamia, Geelong Advertiser and Nationwide News, pleaded guilty to contempt charges earlier this year.

Suppression orders at the time of Cardinal Pell's conviction in December 2018 - since overturned by the High Court - was banned until February 2019 when a second trial was scrapped.

But several newspapers and websites published details referencing a guilty verdict in a high-profile Australian's trial.

Companies agreed in February to pay $650,000 in prosecution costs and make a formal apology to County Court Chief Judge Peter Kidd. They admitted 21 charges, whittled down from more than 100 initially.

In his sentence, Justice Dixon rejected a prosecution claim that media companies had deliberately published reports in order to pressure Judge Kidd into removing the orders.

But he was satisfied the companies took a calculated risk by intentionally publishing the report, and not in an honest but mistaken belief that it was OK to do so.

"The content of the reports in most cases indicated media respondents disagreed with the suppression orders," he said.

It was with blatant and wilful defiance of the court's authority that they had each taken a risk to publish anyway, he said.

The biggest fines were $400,000 handed to News Life Media for a news.com.au online article and $450,000 fine for The Age over print and online articles and an online editorial.

Fairfax Media must pay $160,000 for three articles in the Australian Financial Review, while the company behind The Today Show was fined $30,000 over three breakfast show segments.

The offending articles included claims of a "secret scandal" and declaring it "the nation's biggest story". Sydney 2GB radio host Chris Smith encouraged listeners to Google the details to learn Cardinal Pell's identity.

Justice Dixon said the media companies had usurped the court's function in protecting the proper administration of justice, deciding themselves where the balance lay between Cardinal Pell's right to a fair trial and the public's right to know.

The way in which the court sought to protect the administration of justice was not a matter for public debate either, he said.

In a pre-sentence hearing, Nine and Mamamia's defence lawyer said the case was unique in that it was the first time a report was said to have the potential to prejudice a future trial without having named the accused or their charges.

Justice Dixon noted that, but said the order's intention was to protect Cardinal Pell's legal rights.

"It was never imagined that simply not identifying Pell as the accused would achieve that purpose," he said.

"It is notable that the media's right to publish what it thinks the community deserves to know was never to be permanently suppressed."

He said ultimately the public's right to know had only been deferred for 77 days.

Lawyers were to arrange a separate hearing to make their apologies, but an apology letter to the judge was viewed as a better use of everyone's time during a pandemic which has caused major delays throughout the justice system.

BREAKDOWN OF THE FINES:

The Age - $450,000

News Life Media (news.com.au) - $400,000

Fairfax Media (Sydney Morning Herald and Australian Financial Review) - $162,000

General Television Corporation (The Today Show) - $30,000

Nationwide News (Daily Telegraph) - $21,000

Mamamia - $20,000

Allure Media (Business Insider) - $10,000

Radio 2GB Sydney - $10,000

Herald Sun and Weekly Times - $2,000

The Advertiser - $1000

Queensland Newspapers (Courier Mail) - $1000

Geelong Advertiser - $1000

(Source: Supreme Court of Victoria)

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