The lawyer defending Australia’s biggest news organisations against contempt charges for their reporting of Cardinal George Pell’s sex crimes conviction denounced on Monday what he called an unprecedented attack on press freedom in the country.
Twenty-three journalists and 13 media companies face fines and prison terms for allegedly breaching a gag order not to report on last year’s trial of Pell for child sex abuse.
Pell, 77, the most senior Catholic cleric convicted of sex crimes, was found guilty in December of abusing two choirboys and is serving a six-year prison term. He has appealed the conviction.
The court had banned all reporting of the case pending a second trial scheduled for this month, but the gag order was lifted in February when that trial was cancelled.
Some foreign media, including The New York Times and the Washington Post, reported Pell’s conviction in December, while local media ran cryptic articles complaining that they were being prevented from reporting a story of major public interest.
The Australian media and reporters were accused of abetting contempt of court by the foreign press and of “scandalising the court” by breaching the suppression order, despite none of them reporting on the charges involved or mentioning Pell by name.
If convicted, journalists face prison terms of up to five years and the news organisations fines of up to AU$500,000 (US$ 360,000).
Matthew Collins, representing the accused media at the first hearing on the matter on Monday, said such wide-ranging contempt charges had “no precedent” in Australian legal history.
“There are simply no cases of which we are aware in Australia where media organisations, editors or journalists have been charged, much less found guilty, of contempt in circumstances such as these,” he was quoted by local media as telling the court in Melbourne.
Collins added that a guilty verdict on any of the charges would have a “chilling effect” on open justice in Australia.
He added that the contempt allegations lacked specific examples of how any of the accused news companies or journalists actually breached the gag order when they never mentioned Pell or the crimes for which he was convicted.
The accused include Australia’s two biggest newspaper companies, Rupert Murdoch’s Nationwide News and the former Fairfax group now owned by broadcaster Nine, as well as leading newspaper editors and reporters.
Judge John Dixon agreed that prosecutors had not provided sufficient detail of the charges against each news organisation and journalist, asking “does this involve one trial or 36 trials, or something in between?”.
He ordered prosecutors to provide detailed statements of claim to the accused and set a new hearing for 26 June.