Prosecutors in George Pell contempt case drop more than a dozen charges against media

Charges withdrawn against online editors of the Geelong Advertiser, Weekly Times and Adelaide Advertiser, as well as some News Corp sites

George Pell arriving at court in February 2019.
George Pell arriving at court in February 2019. Journalists and media organisations are on trial over claims that they breached a gag order on reporting about the cardinal’s sexual abuse convictions that have since been overturned. Photograph: Andy Brownbill/AP
George Pell arriving at court in February 2019. Journalists and media organisations are on trial over claims that they breached a gag order on reporting about the cardinal’s sexual abuse convictions that have since been overturned. Photograph: Andy Brownbill/AP
and Australian Associated Press

Last modified on Fri 13 Nov 2020 01.32 EST

Prosecutors have dropped more than a dozen charges against reporters and media companies over their coverage of Cardinal George Pell’s sexual abuse convictions.

Four days into a contempt trial at the Victorian supreme court covering 30 journalists and media organisations on charges of breaching suppression orders and other reporting rules, part of the case came crashing down.

Crown prosecutor Lisa De Ferrari formally withdrew 13 charges against News Corp staff and publications over stories published after the cardinal was convicted of child sexual abuse offences in December 2018.

Media still facing contempt charges include News Corp editors Sam Weir of the Courier Mail and Ben English of the Daily Telegraph, Australian Financial Review editor-in-chief Michael Stutchbury, the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald Lisa Davies, Nine Entertainment broadcasters Chris Smith, Deborah Knight and Christine Ahern, former Age editor Alex Lavelle and Age investigative journalist Michael Bachelard.

The corporations named on the respondent list include the Herald and Weekly Times, Nationwide News, Nine Entertainment, Advertiser Newspapers, Allure Media and Mamamia.com.au.

There were 21 separate publications, six corporate groups and 19 individual journalists charged with breaching a suppression order when the trial started on Monday, but 13 of the 100 charges were withdrawn by prosecutors this week.

Respondents who were released include former Herald Sun editor Damon Johnston, 2GB broadcaster Ray Hadley, the editor of the Brisbane Times Danielle Cronin and the digital editor of the Geelong Advertiser Andrew Piva.

Some sub judice contempt charges were also dropped against News Corp brands the Herald Sun, Geelong Advertiser, the Daily Telegraph, the Weekly Times and The Advertiser and one online journalist Ben Woodhead from Nine Entertainment.

One corporate group, Fairfax Media, which no longer exists after it was taken over by Nine, has also been removed.

Pell was acquitted of all charges by the high court on appeal in April.

De Ferrari has argued some of the publications in the days after the guilty verdicts encouraged the public to seek out international news reports which were not subject to the Australian suppression orders and freely named Cardinal Pell.

Defence lawyers countered that claim, noting some of the articles prosecutors referred to were published after the Australian ones.

Lawyers for the prosecution disclosed early on in the process that they had done four online searches two weeks after the stories were published, using a series of key phrases from the Australian articles, to find those international stories.

But defence lawyers criticised the two-year delay in the disclosure that eight other searches had brought up no stories that named the cardinal.

It’s argued the print and online publications, radio and television reports had a tendency to prejudice a second trial Pell was due to face in the months after the so-called cathedral trial.

But that matter, dubbed the swimmers trial, was withdrawn after county court judge Peter Kidd ruled certain evidence in the case could not be used.