Australia Threatening Over 100 Journalists For Accurately Reporting On Cardinal Pell's Sex Abuse Trial

from the free-speech? dept

The Australian concept of free speech still boggles the mind — as it appears they’re not very big on supporting it. Yesterday we had our story about how journalists were finally able to report on the conviction of Cardinal George Pell, the former Vatican CFO (and often described as the 3rd most powerful person in the Vatican), over some fairly horrific child sexual abuse claims. The conviction had happened back in December, and we were among those who wrote about it at the time, focusing on the ridiculousness of the Australian court’s “suppression order,” barring any of the reporters who were covering the trial from writing about either the conviction or the existence of the suppression order. The ostensible reason was that there was a second trial still necessary for Pell. However, as I’ve noted in earlier posts, the US handles this in a much better, and less speech-suppressing manner: by (1) asking potential jurors about their familiarity with the case, and (2) forbidding just the jury pool from further researching the case. It may not be perfect, but the system does work pretty well, and avoids a massive speech suppressing blanket order from a court that would appear to violate any concept of a “free press” in Australia.

The situation with the Pell suppression order was even worse, actually, because it impacted many news organizations outside of Australia, out of fear that breaking the suppression order might lead to consequences for local staff in Australia (or even possibly abroad). Some publications in Australia certainly found ways to express their displeasure about the suppression order, such as the Herald Sun, which had the following cover page:

However, it impacted other publications as well. Many international news organizations refused to cover the situation at all, and the NY Times took the surprising step of refusing to publish any stories about the case online, but it did run stories in its print edition — but not in the Australian print edition. This is somewhat frightening if you support freedom of the press.

But, now things are even more frightening. Apparently, Australia has started sending “notices” out to journalists who in some way covered either the case or the gag order before it was lifted:

But now, more than 100 notices have been sent to journalists, bloggers and media organizations, Bosland tells NPR from Australia. Kerri Judd, director of public prosecutions in Victoria state, notified recipients of an intent to charge them with offenses for their coverage of the trial.

Bosland described the charges as not just violating the suppression order but aiding and abetting gag order breaches in international media, scandalizing the court, and sub judice contempt.

It’s unclear if these notices have only gone to Australian news organizations or journalists, but no matter how you look at it, this is despicable. The idea that accurately reporting on the news of a conviction in a horrific scandal is “scandalizing the court” is simply messed up. A site called claims to have the text of the letter sent to news organizations, offering them a chance to respond before they face charges:

As you will be aware, George Pell is facing prosecution for historical child sex offences in the County Court, and a suppression order was made in relation to this matter on 25 June 2018.

I have considered the above publication, and it is my opinion that the above publication breaches the suppression order, has a definite and real tendency to interfere with the administration of justice and therefore constitutes sub judice contempt. is contemptuous by reason of it scandalising the Court. and aided and abetted contempts by overseas media.

At present, I intend to institute proceedings for contempt against you. However, I have determined to allow you the opportunity to respond and to draw any relevant matters to my attention, if you wish to do so, before I institute proceedings.

According to a report in the Guardian that is (correctly) critical of these suppression orders, the various media organizations in Australia are lawyering up to fight this:

The Melbourne lawyer Justin Quill, from Macpherson Kelley, is acting for a combined group of media organisations who will defend the charges, including the Nine newspapers and TV outlets, News Corp, Channel Ten, Mamamia and Macquarie Media.

As many as 100 editors, online content people and journalists are potentially in the frame.

As that article notes, this whole situation is completely nonsensical and disconnected from reality. It also notes that Victoria, in particular, seems to issue a ton of these suppression orders compared to other Aussie jurisdictions:

Again, the contempt case against the media seems like a fantastical disconnect with events as they transpired. Ultimately, the second trial was not prejudiced because it didn?t take place and that was not due to any prejudicial reporting.

The state of Victoria has a bit of a love affair with suppression orders, issuing them at more than twice the rate of New South Wales, which is a bigger jurisdiction with larger courts, more cases and more judges.

Perhaps that explains this latest move — in which the only things that are actual scandals are the horrific acts of George Pell, a court suppressing the media and now Victoria prosecutors seeking to create a massive chilling effect by threatening the press for their reporting. Not included in that list: reporters doing their jobs.

Many of these orders are a direct affront to open justice, freedom of the media and the community?s right to know what is happening in the courts and society generally. They are often-times made unaccompanied by adequate reasons and there is plenty of difficulty finding out if and when they have been lifted.

Freedom of speech is supposed to be an article of faith in a democracy, key components of which are the rule of law and an independent media. Americans, more than most, hold it in high regard because they have a constitution that protects reporting on matters of public importance. In fact, if the Pell trial were held in the US it would be unconstitutional to suppress reporting of the proceedings.

And, given the responses to my previous posts, some will again point out that Australia is not the US. But this is still spitting on the very idea of a free press and free expression, and that’s shameful.

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Comments on “Australia Threatening Over 100 Journalists For Accurately Reporting On Cardinal Pell's Sex Abuse Trial”

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Anonymous Coward says:

"At present, I intend to institute proceedings for contempt against you. However, I have determined to allow you the opportunity to respond and to draw any relevant matters to my attention, if you wish to do so, before I institute proceedings."

This statement alone completely expresses the utter contempt tha this individual has for a representative government. Without ever having meet the individual it is my opinion that I would find an out control statistic devoted to a totalitarian system with him/her in control ie a glory boy politician with the belief of how great he/she is.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Forget

That’s right, it covers takedowns, purportedly for copyright reasons, but we know it has been used for other more malicious reasons. Nor does section 230 cover defamation. There is no reason that any website should know, or have to know if some user posts defamatory content, that is until a court determines that the content is actual defamation and orders the content taken down.

You know what covers defamation? Defamation and libel laws. Go figure.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Forget

While that may be the case, you still have the option to respond with data, evidence, and maybe even a lawyer … in a court of law.

Meanwhile – the citizens of Downunderland do not have any rights to be informed about those who are in positions of authority and influence. What a system.

So, the two are not even close to being the same.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Stop showing contempt for the court!' '

Bosland described the charges as not just violating the suppression order but aiding and abetting gag order breaches in international media, scandalizing the court, and sub judice contempt.

As ridiculous things/people are by definition deserving of ridicule, contemptuous things/people, like attempting to gag the press at more than twice the rate of neighboring larger areas of the country, are likewise deserving of contempt by definition.

You want people to stop engaging in ‘contempt of court’, maybe stop being so worthy of contempt.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The worst part is that they use scandalize to mean "bring attention to a scandal" rather than "to cause a scandal by doing something scandalous." It’s the "whoever smelt it, dealt it" principle of law.

"The cardinal abused children!"

"Yes, but you wrote about it! That’s so much more scandalous!"

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

From the nation that brought you the idea that their law was more powerful than math… we bring you do not upset your betters.

We want to make sure the old man who had power & diddled kids can have a fair trial (funny that New Corp is getting owned in this as one of their reporters was claiming the trial was nothing but an attack on Catholics for being catholic & not raping kids).

I guess reporting that Pell said abortion was a worse sin than raping children might have messed up his chances, but he was in the media making statements that were covered saying this was a crock, etc. etc…. heaven forbid the media cover his trial & report the truth to people.

Anonymous Coward says:

It’s true that Australia does not have the levels of constitutional free speech protection that the USA does, and as an Australian I think this is a problem.

What I find interesting is that most Australians believe we have greater free speech protection than actually exists in law, probably due to watching lots of US film and TV, having a generally modern approach to freedom of religion/political affiliation, high living standard etc…. but also to a lack of education and critical thinking on these types of issues.

So when this type of publicised incident occurs it causes a sort of disconnect, where people say ‘what, how the hell can this happen? This is disgraceful etc’. But the reality is we just don’t have a bill of rights, a peculiar product of our national history, so when the illusion of US- style free speech protection is challenged or broken, it’s hard to respond. Other than to lawyer up I guess.

There are in fact many citizens and people in civil society who support a proper bill of rights, but it’s hard to get the political will to actually achieve it when living standards are relatively high etc, and people just cruise along (and increasingly struggle to get by). This leads to that modern apathy I think we all recognise.

I appreciate that Mike acknowledges Australia is not the USA, as it can be slightly wearing to continually be judged through that lens when there are quite a few things that I believe we do far better than the US … but free speech protection is definitely not one of them!

Just wanted to add my take on the Australia-as-a-monolithic-entity approach. I hope this issue blows up, that the media involved continue to fight in the courts, and that outraged citizens demand change. We’ll see.

PS please don’t conflate this issue with defamation, it is not.( And yes our defamation laws are also problematic. )

Anonymous Coward says:

Followup: Some but not all contempt cases dropped

Prosecutor drops George Pell contempt of court cases against ABC and Crikey”, by Melissa Davey, Guardian, Feb 5, 2019

Cases against Fairfax, Nine, Macquarie Radio and Mamamia journalists have not been dropped

 . . . [L]etters sent to the media companies from Victoria’s office of public prosecutions did not give a reason for dropping the contempt cases . . .

But Guardian Australia understands that the more than 50 contempt cases still before Fairfax, Nine, Macquarie Radio and Mamamia have not been dropped, with staff from those organisations facing the prospect of court proceedings and even the prospect of jail time.

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