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Thursday, November 26, 2020

George Pell contempt trial: Extensive legal advice given over article, court told

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A court has heard extensive legal advice was given to news organisations before the publication of articles that are at the centre of the George Pell contempt matter.

The publications took a cautious legal approach to publication and legal advice was sought and given on multiple occasions, the Victorian Supreme Court was told yesterday.

An online article with the headline “The story we can’t report” appeared on news.com.au on December 13, 2018, referring to a “high profile Australian known across the world” who was convicted of a serious crime but unable to be identified by Australian media.

The court was told this article was automatically syndicated to other websites within the network of News Corp Australia, without the involvement of people employed by those websites.

News Corp Australia senior litigation counsel Marlia Saunders appeared as a witness on the third day of the trial, saying legal advice for the online story was sought and obtained twice from the company’s internal lawyer network the morning the story ran.

Similar advice was also obtained for sister publications, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and Brisbane’s Courier-Mail.

The evidence came on day three of the trial of 18 journalists and 12 news organisations over an alleged breach of suppression order relating to Cardinal Pell’s conviction for sexual abuse in December 2018. Pell was subsequently acquitted of the charges. All defendants are fighting the charges.

The Victorian Office of Public Prosecutions brought the action against numerous journalists and media entities after they published or broadcast information the OPP alleges amounted to a breach of the then suppression order applying to the Pell case.

During cross examination on Wednesday, Director of Public Prosecutors barrister Lisa De Ferrari, SC, said data given to the court by Ms Saunders suggesting the Herald Sun online article about the high profile Australian had only 23 hits was “completely implausible”.

Ms Saunders said the article originated on the news.com.au website and was automatically syndicated to other online publications within the stable. But the low numbers suggested was likely to have been buried in the “back end” of the Herald Sun website, making it difficult for readers to find unless it was given a prominent spot.

The three-week trial before Justice John Dixon resumes on Thursday.

Cardinal George Pell leaving the County Court in Melbourne. Photo: Con CHRONIS/AFP
media_cameraCardinal George Pell leaving the County Court in Melbourne. Photo: Con CHRONIS/AFP

In other Pell-related news, it emerged on Wednesday Victoria’s anti-corruption watchdog would not investigate unrelated allegations that more than $1 million was wired from the Vatican to Australia to support the case against the cardinal.

IBAC said it reviewed the information but there was not enough evidence to begin an investigation.

News Corp Australia is the publisher of NCA NewsWire.

Originally published as Extensive legal advice given over Pell story

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