The administration of justice sometimes requires sensational media reporting to be suppressed in order to ensure a fair trial.
Whilst some may view this as patronising, trial by media has become commonplace and reporting by the media often distorts the evidence in court.
You’ve probably heard about Suppression Orders in the news. But what are Suppression Orders? And why are the Australian media on trial for breaching them?
Basically, a Suppression Order prohibits or restricts the disclosure of information by publication or otherwise.
Cardinal Pell’s Trial
In March 2019, Cardinal George Pell was sentenced to six years in prison for sexual offences against choirboys in 1996-1997.
Pell’s sentence was broadcast from the Victorian County Court, reported online, and published in newspapers around the world. The broadcast, Chief Judge Kidd noted, was for the purposes of “transparent and open justice”. However, watching the sentencing or reading Kidd CJ’s remarks was the first time that many people had heard about Pell’s trial at all.
Pell’s trial was subject to a Suppression Order, imposed by Kidd CJ on 25 June 2018. Pell faced a second trial on separate charges. In His Honour’s view, there was a “real and substantial risk” that reporting on the first trial might prejudice a jury in the second. Imposing a Suppression Order, even if at odds with the notions of transparency and openness, would at least ensure the “proper administration of justice” in a second trial.
Until the Suppression Order was revoked in February 2019, following the abandonment of the second trial, all reporting about Cardinal Pell’s trial was prohibited.
Soon after Pell’s conviction in December 2018, social media was flooded with information reporting the verdict. Although the Suppression Order was still in effect, the court’s decision was published, posted and shared by individuals and media organisations around the world.
Australian media organisations were more cautious, usually making reference to the trial without naming Cardinal Pell specifically. The Herald Sun’s “censored” front page of 13 December 2019 (pictured below) was particularly wily – attempting to notify its readers of the verdict without breaching the Suppression Order.
Thirteen news outlets and 23 journalists faced court on 15 April 2019 over their coverage of Pell’s conviction. Most are accused of “scandalising the court” by their coverage, a charge related to contempt of court. Some are also accused of having “aided and abetted the overseas media’s contempt”. Australian media organisations will face hefty fines if they are convicted. Journalists who are found guilty of contempt can be imprisoned.
For further information see this article in The Guardian.
As yet, the outcome of these prosecutions is unknown. Whatever the court’s findings, Pell’s trial and its coverage in the media illustrate the legal, ethical and practical difficulties that Australian courts face.
Courts must balance judicial fairness and transparency as best they can. Perhaps Suppression Orders are no longer adequate in an increasingly digitised and connected world.
If you need assistance with any criminal matter, then Martin Bullock Lawyers can help. Call Greg Martin or Jacqueline Wainwright on 02 9687 9322.