Media companies will be forced to pay more than $1 million in fines after publishing details of Cardinal George Pell’s child sexual abuse convictions in breach or court orders.
Supreme Court Justice John Dixon on Friday blasted a dozen companies for their “blatant and wilful defiance of the court’s authority” in banning publication of Cardinal Pell’s convictions.
The mastheads and companies, including The Age, Herald and Weekly Times, Mamamia, Geelong Advertiser and Nationwide News, pleaded guilty to contempt charges earlier in 2021.
Suppression orders at the time of Cardinal Pell’s conviction in December 2018 – since overturned by the High Court – was banned until February 2019 when a second trial was scrapped.
But several newspapers and websites published details referencing a guilty verdict in a high-profile Australian’s trial.
Companies agreed in February to pay $650,000 in prosecution costs and make a formal apology to County Court Chief Judge Peter Kidd. They admitted 21 charges, whittled down from more than 100 initially.
In his sentence, Justice Dixon rejected a prosecution claim that media companies had deliberately published reports to pressure Judge Kidd into removing the orders.
But he was satisfied the companies took a calculated risk by intentionally publishing the report, and not in an honest but mistaken belief that it was OK to do so.
“The content of the reports in most cases indicated media respondents disagreed with the suppression orders,” he said.
It was with blatant and wilful defiance of the court’s authority that they had each taken a risk to publish anyway, he said.
The biggest fines were $400,000 handed to News Life Media for a news.com.au online article and $450,000 fine for The Age for print and online articles and an online editorial.
Fairfax Media must pay $160,000 for three articles in the Australian Financial Review, while the company behind The Today Show was fined $30,000 for three breakfast show segments.
Mamamia was fined $20,000 for an online article, while Business Insider and Radio 2GB Sydney will each be out of pocket $10,000 for their coverage.
Several newspapers received smaller $1000 fines for online articles.
Lawyers were to arrange a separate hearing to make their apologies, but an apology letter to the judge was viewed as a better use of everyone’s time because of the pandemic that has caused major delays throughout the justice system.