Pell’s trial shows courts can’t keep secrets in the internet age

Image: SMH Internet age

Australians with a modicum of curiosity might well ask what’s been going on.

Cardinal George Pell, an Australian who is one of the most senior people in the hierarchy of the Catholic church, was found guilty in December and no one till now has been allowed to know the details of the charges against him, the trial proceedings, the identity of the complainants, or his conviction.

It left a pretty big gap in the community’s knowledge of a serious event in the affairs of the nation.

The county court in Melbourne ordered that any Pell-related criminal information be kept under wraps pending the outcome of a planned second trial on a number of separate charges.

The notion was to protect prospective jurors at a second trial from having their thoughts contaminated and their views prejudiced by what happened at the first.

Now that we know there will be no second trial, the suppression order remaining in place against reporting the verdict on the first trial looks, to my mind and in this age of the ubiquitous internet, rather nonsensical.

Indeed, suppression and non-publication orders from the courts increasingly take on a ludicrous quality, where locally based mainstream publishers and broadcasters with significant assets lie down and abide by judicial edicts, while those with one finger on a social media app blissfully ignore them.

One law for big publishers and no law for everyone else.

It’s as though we are in Fantasia, where a large proportion of the population know something that they are not supposed to know.

Such was the case with Pell’s conviction. Some of the big media outlets in this country gave us a whiff that there was something in the public interest going on that could not be reported, with headlines like “Censored”, “Secret scandal” and so on.

Meanwhile, it became evident that the internet does not stop at the sovereign borders of the nation.

Online publishers beyond the writ of the county court of Victoria were doing their level best to pump out the story.

Among the notable reports were those by the Washington Post, the Daily Beast (which was published and then geo-blocked) and a US Jesuit news site.

The grapevine effect was up and running – so much for the holy writ of suppression orders.

Following the publication of those teasing headlines – after Pell’s conviction on the choirboy charges – there was a tense session in the county court in which the chief judge, Peter Kidd, and the director of public prosecutions, Kerri Judd QC, expressed their concern that the suppression order may have been breached – even without Pell being identified directly.

Since then the office of the Victorian DPP has notified media organisations, along with some of their senior editorial employees, that she is “considering charges” for sub-judice contempt and scandalising the court.

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. Continue reading

  • Richard Ackland is an Australian journalist, publisher and lawyer, who graduated with degrees in economics and law and was admitted as a solicitor of the Supreme Court of New South Wales before going on to pursue a career in journalism.
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