2021-01-29 23:17:37 | Pell contempt case: journalists under scrutiny after 27 charged over verdict’s coverage | Australian media



Story by: Nino Bucci The Guardian

It did not take long for word to reach Australian newsrooms: at 3.44pm on 11 December 2018, a jury found George Pell guilty of child sexual abuse.

But the verdict was treated quite differently to other significant breaking news stories, which would usually spark a fevered rush to publish.

Pell had another trial set to start the following March, and a suppression order prevented reporting that could jeopardise the fairness of that outstanding case.

The order prevented any Australian reporting on the verdict in the first trial until a verdict was reached in the second.

The only thing that could be reported was that Pell was facing historical child sexual offences in the county court of Victoria. Nothing could be published that was “derived” from the trial, including the verdict, the nature of the charges, or the number of victims, charges or trials, under the order.

Within 24 hours of the jury handing down its verdict, the mood in some of those newsrooms had seemingly shifted. It was no longer a case of what they couldn’t publish, but what they could.

Two journalists with decades of experience, former editor of the Age, Alex Lavelle, and Australian Financial Review (AFR) news editor Mark Coultan, gave evidence this week in the supreme court trial of 27 media companies, reporters and editors charged with contempt for their coverage of the Pell verdict.

It is alleged most of those charged committed contempt of court by breaching that suppression order, and subjudice contempt, meaning they published material that had a tendency to prejudice the second Pell trial.

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Coultan, who is not facing charges, told the court on Friday that he had not read the suppression order before working with AFR journalists on their Pell coverage.

Two colleagues of Coultan, and Fairfax Media as the responsible company, are facing charges for the publication of three articles online and in print.

Coultan told the court he trusted the advice of the publication’s lawyers, rather than relying on his own interpretation of suppression orders, and expected journalists to do the same when working on stories.

“I don’t want our journalists becoming bush lawyers and making decisions based on their reading of a suppression order,” he said.

Lavelle, who is one of the individuals facing charges, told the court on Thursday that he received legal advice confirming he could have published a story regarding the Pell verdict on the day it was handed down, but decided against it as it didn’t have “merit” at that time.

By the following day, the verdict was reported on international websites in articles that could be found with a Google search of “George Pell guilty”, leading to widespread comments on social media, and several Age readers to call the newsroom asking why they had not reported the verdict, including one that suggested a “Catholic conspiracy”.

The court heard that an article was again sent to the company’s lawyers, they again said it was fine to publish despite the existing orders, and Lavelle said he then had a discussion with his Sydney Morning Herald counterpart, Lisa Davies, and the media company’s executive editor, James Chessell, who oversees both editors, about whether to publish. Later that night, they did.

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The court heard that the Age and the AFR both published stories which contained information derived from the trial, including referring to the verdict. Neither publication, nor any other accused, named Pell.

Lavelle was asked by Justice John Dixon on Friday how he could have been convinced that the publication of stories containing information derived from the trial was permitted, given the first point of the suppression order prohibited the publication of “any information derived from these trials and any court documents associated with these trials”. Lavelle, who had earlier given evidence that he had read the order, said he trusted the judgment of the company’s lawyers despite the wording of the order.

Roslyn Kaye, for the prosecution, pressed Coultan and Lavelle on several key points relating to journalists involved in writing the stories which are subject to the contempt proceedings.

In order to prove either contempt charge, the prosecution must prove the accused published, or caused to be published, the offending articles.

The prosecution asked detailed questions of the role reporters play in newsrooms: was a reporter overseeing or informed of developments with a story up until it was published, or did their role end once the final word on the final sentence was filed to their editors?

The prosecution allege the former, but Lavelle and Coultan gave evidence suggesting the latter.

The Pell verdict was later overturned by the high court and the second trial did not go ahead. The suppression order was lifted once the second trial was aborted.

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In the last minutes of Friday’s hearing, the prospect was raised of another development in the contempt court proceedings which started in April 2019.

Will Houghton QC, who represents News Corp papers, reporters and editors in the proceedings, flagged to Dixon that he may make an application on Monday in relation to the questioning of Lavelle earlier on Friday, but gave no indication of the nature of the application.

The trial is expected to run for two more weeks.



Story continues…

Source References: The Guardian

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