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Media outlets face court in George Pell contempt case

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Contempt allegations against some of Australia’s top editors and journalists over their coverage of Cardinal George Pell’s child sexual abuse convictions has been labelled “as serious as it gets”.

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Victoria’s Director of Public Prosecutions has named 36 organisations and individuals, asking they be found guilty of contempt of court for breaching a suppression order and prejudicing Pell’s sexual abuse trial.

Media lawyer Matthew Collins QC told the Supreme Court in Melbourne the case was unprecedented in Australia and guilt findings could have a “chilling effect” on open justice.

Among those named in the claim are Herald Sun editor Damon Johnston, The Age editor Alex Lavelle, Sydney radio shock-jock Ray Hadley and Today show host Deborah Knight.

Collins has sought more time to compile a defence, asking for prosecutors to lay out the charges against his clients more specifically.

He said the allegations were not “garden variety” contempt and he could find no precedent in Australian law.

“This is as serious as it gets in terms of convictions, fined and jail time,” he said.

Contempt of court carries a maximum penalty of up to five years in prison.

Pell was found guilty in December of orally raping a choirboy and molesting another in 1996, but the verdict was suppressed until February when further charges and a second trial were dropped.

Some media outlets alluded to the verdict – without actually naming Pell – while the suppression was still in place.

Organisations are standing by their stories, including News Corp, which said it would “vigorously defend all charges and resolutely stand by our editors and journalists”.

Of the 36 facing charges, 34 are accused of breaching suppression orders, committing sub judice contempt and aiding and abetting foreign media to do the same, Collins said.

Sixteen are facing accusations of scandalising the court with publications and broadcasts.

“None of the publications or broadcasts named Pell or even identified the charges he was found guilty of,” Collins said.

“Nowhere does it say what the respondents are said to have done … which is necessary for a contempt of this kind,” he later added.

Collins said those accused of scandalising the court had in many cases done nothing more than have a “robust discussion” of a topic that was already the subject of public interest.

Justice John Dixon also urged that consideration be given to how the case would be run, whether as one single trial or as 36 individual matters.

He ordered that prosecutors file detailed statements of claim against all those facing charges by May 20 and that the defence file their responses by June 21.

The parties must return to court for a further directions hearing on June 26.

-AAP

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