An Australian magistrate is seeking to prosecute journalists and media outlets for violating a court-imposed reporting ban on the trial of Cardinal George Pell in 2018. Convicted in 2018, then on appeal in 2019, the former Archbishop of Melbourne was acquitted on April 7, 2020 by the country’s High Court.
On May 26, 2020, John Dixon, a judge on the Supreme Court of the State of Victoria, declared that nineteen individual journalists as well as twelve media outlets belonging to the Robert Murdoch group and its competitor Fairfax Media, should explain themselves before the court, next November 9.
Their alleged offense is to have breached the obligation to remain silent in the context of a court case. If they are found guilty, the penalties for “contempt of court” range from simple fines, sometimes heavy, to prison terms.
The story dates back to December 2018, when Cardinal George Pell was convicted on five counts of child sexual abuse by a court in Victoria. The high prelate filed an appeal against the judgment. The Victoria Court of Appeals, after a new examination of the case, confirmed the decision brought at first instance. Finally, on April 7, 2020, the High Court decided to quash the previous judgments, and the cardinal recovered his freedom, after more than a year spent behind bars.
However, during the first trial in 2018, the president of the court had published a “suppression order” imposing total silence about the case on the media, in order to prevent the jurors of a probable trial on appeal being subject to media pressure and influenced in their deliberations.
Braving the order, several Australian media outlets decided to disseminate information about the trial. Hoisted by their own petard, these journalists and press organs now find themselves in the position of accused, summoned to answer for their actions, very real ones.
It is unlikely that they, in their turn, will face the media lynching suffered by the former Archbishop of Melbourne during the judicial odyssey from his indictment to his conviction and finally to his acquittal.