Criminal Law

By Ben Aulich


Pell reporting threatened fair trial

36 news agencies and journalists have been called to the Supreme court to answer accusations of contempt of Court for publishing material about George Pell’s first trial before the conclusion of his second trial for child sexual abuse.

The journalists claim their prosecutions have a huge effect on the “transparency of justice” or in other words – the right the community has to know what happened.

A perfect case for journalists to run such an argument and attempt to obtain the moral high ground – but they’re wrong. There was a suppression order or in Canberra what’s known as a non-publication order in place and it seems on it’s face the journalists simply ignored a Court order to get ratings and attract readers. The journalists may attempt to “dress it up” by suggesting the publications were for the greater good of the community but let’s face it – it was for the greater good of the journalists and their news organisations. It smacks of Derryn Hinch’s stunt in 2013, which no doubt boosted the rating of his show and his popularity to the lowest common denominator. The Court did no say Pell’s first trial could not be reported. The Court said it could not be reported until after the second trial was heard. A pretty reasonable order to make and one that is pretty standard when an accused is facing more than one trial over a short period of time. It makes sense – wait until it has all been dealt with to ensure a jury’s view on the evidence is not influenced by the media coverage. The Supreme Court order was not made in an attempt to “hide Pell’s conduct” or to protect the Catholic Church, it was made solely in an attempt to give a citizen the best chance of a fair second trial. It is not up to a journalist to pick and choose which order to comply with or what is in the best interest of the community. There is no better interest than ensuring all of our citizens get a fair trial no matter how famous, no matter how appalling the charges are.

In my view if the journalists have been found to have breached a Court order, they should be found guilty of contempt of Court and dealt with in a robust fashion.