Journalists and publications accused of breaking a gag order regarding the Cardinal George Pell legal case could face multiple trials, a court heard on Monday.
In a short directions hearing in the Supreme Court in Melbourne, Judge John Dixon said he was considering how the prosecution of 36 top journalists and editors would unfold.
“The question in my mind is whether this involves one trial or 36 trials, or something in between,” he said.
The Victorian Director of Public Prosecutions has accused 23 journalists and 13 news outlets of various allegations, including scandalising the court, aiding and abetting contempt of court by overseas media and breaching suppression orders.
Among those facing charges are the Herald Sun, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, Nine Entertainment, The Australian Financial Review, Macquarie Media and website Mamamia.
Some of the leading names involved include broadcasters Deborah Knight and Ray Hadley.
The prosecution is considered an unprecedented media case in Australia, and possibly globally, in terms of the large number of respondents.
The reporters and editors, who did not have to appear in court on Monday, could face jail terms and fines for breaking a strict gag order regarding coverage published or broadcast in December, when Pell was found guilty of five counts of historical child abuse.
The verdict was off limits for media reporting until February.
However, some media outlets alluded to the verdict – without naming Pell – while the suppression was still in place.
No Australian media named Pell or the charges at the time. But some foreign media did, resulting in the story going viral on social media.
At one point, following the conviction, the verdict was No. 2 in trends on Twitter.
Barrister Matthew Collins, who represented Rebel Wilson in her recent defamation case, was in court on Monday as the lawyer for all of the respondents.
He told Judge Dixon the situation was “as serious as it gets” because the respondents could face jail sentences.
“None of the publications or broadcasts even named Cardinal Pell or identified the charges of which he was found guilty,” he said.
Mr Collins argued that it was wrong to claim the respondents aided and abetted overseas media coverage in December 2018, saying the overseas reports had largely already been published.
Pell was found guilty in December of attacking two choirboys at St Patrick’s Cathedral in the late 1990s.
Victoria’s County Court of Victoria had suppressed reporting of that trial because a second trial was due on other charges in April 2019. It collapsed in February, and the suppression order was lifted.
Front page of Thursday's edition of Australia's Herald Sun: "CENSORED"
"A statement to our readers…The world is reading a very important story that is relevant to Victorians. The Herald Sun is prevented from publishing details of this significant news." https://t.co/bzFOluucy9 pic.twitter.com/J0vSkBrB1g
— Oliver Darcy (@oliverdarcy) December 12, 2018
Some newspapers ran cryptic front pages on the day after the guilty verdict, including The Daily Telegraph in Sydney, which ran a headline saying: “The nation’s biggest story.”
Melbourne’s Herald Sun ran a blacked-out front page saying “censored”.
Breaches of suppression orders can be punished with jail for up to five years and fines of nearly $100,000 for individuals, and nearly $500,000 for companies.
Pell, 77, was last month jailed for six years and is being held at Melbourne Assessment Prison in a segregation unit along with high-profile killers and terror suspects.
His appeal against his conviction will be heard in early June.
At the end of the hearing, Judge Dixon, who said it was possible that the defendants might eventually need multiple lawyers and be split into groups, ruled the next directions hearing in the contempt matter would be on June 26.
Prosecutors agreed to provide more detailed allegations, as requested by Mr Collins, before the next hearing.