Australian media on trial for alleged Pell gag-order breach

Melbourne (AFP) –


Australia's biggest news organisations and editorial staff members went on trial Monday on charges they breached a 2018 gag order on coverage of Cardinal George Pell's now-quashed sex crimes convictions.

Several of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp mastheads as well as former Fairfax group newspapers, now owned by broadcaster Nine, are among those who dispute that they breached the court order.

The 18 accused editorial staff members, who include reporters, editors and broadcasters, face potential prison sentences if found guilty of being in contempt of court, while the media companies could be slapped with fines.

All of the accused deny the charges.

A judge issued the suppression order in December 2018 to prevent news of Pell's convictions from prejudicing jurors in an expected second trial on child sex abuse charges that were subsequently dropped in early 2019.

But the order meant Pell's 2018 convictions for abusing two choirboys in the 1990s -- which were overturned in April this year -- initially could not be reported in Australia, including on the internet.

In opening the case Monday, prosecutor Lisa De Ferrari told the Victorian Supreme Court that US-based publications The Daily Beast and The Washington Post were among the first to break the news online.

Local media then ran cryptic articles saying they had been barred from reporting on a story of major public interest involving a high-profile Australian.

Melbourne's Herald Sun newspaper printed a black front page emblazoned with the word "CENSORED", saying "the world is reading a very important story that is relevant to Victorians".

De Ferrari said the coverage amounted to an "invitation to read" the news about Pell that had been published online by outlets outside Australia.

She also tendered as evidence emails between editors at Melbourne-based newspaper The Age debating the merits of publishing an article that explained why they could not report on the story.

"I am totally for a free press. However, I believe everyone should have the same legal protection when facing court," The Age's weekday print editor Selma Milovanovic wrote in objection.

In response, then-editor Alex Lavelle said: "There are those who would say that this is more evidence that the MSM (mainstream media) is irrelevant and we don't need them.

"And there are people asking why we aren't reporting on this story."

Will Houghton, defence barrister for News Corp and its journalists, and Matt Collins, representing all other media including Nine, 2GB radio and lifestyle website Mamamia, are yet to present their arguments.

The judge-only trial, which is being held via video link due to coronavirus restrictions, is expected to last 10 to 15 days.