Media challenge 'unprecedented' contempt charges over Pell reporting

Media organisations face contempt charges over the coverage of the George Pell case. (AAP)

Media organisations fighting criminal charges over coverage of George Pell's sexual abuse trial want more detail on allegations they abetted foreign outlets.

Top Australian journalists and editors are demanding further details of allegations they helped foreign media report George Pell's child sexual abuse verdict while it was suppressed.

More than 30 news organisations and editorial staff are facing charges of contempt of court and aiding and abetting overseas media over their coverage of the cardinal's convictions.

Their lawyer, Matthew Collins QC, labelled the case "as serious as it gets" in a Supreme Court hearing on Monday, suggesting guilty findings could have a chilling effect on open justice in Australia.

Among the allegations is that organisations scandalised the court and aided and abetted foreign publications in the days after Pell was found guilty of five child sexual abuse charges by a jury in December.

Suppression orders prevented publication of the verdict in Australia until February.

Victoria's Director of Public Prosecutions says a series of publications and broadcasts on 13 December last year were in contempt.

But the allegations of aiding and abetting relate to 32 news reports from various unnamed media outlets between 11 December to 18 December.

"How could it be said that conduct occurring on December 13 aided and abetted foreign publication on the 11th and 12th of December?" Dr Collins asked.

A court artist sketch of Cardinal George Pell at the County Court in Melbourne.
A court artist sketch of Cardinal George Pell at the County Court in Melbourne.

He questioned whether organisations were alleged to have contacted overseas organisations with details on the case or encouraged them to publish.

None of the overarching allegations provided in original court documents gives specifics of the individuals facing charges, Dr Collins said.

Some claims refer to editors by virtue only of their job title, while others are only mentioned as being authors of specific articles.

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

"None of the publications or broadcasts named Pell or even identified the charges he was found guilty of," Dr 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.

Dr Collins defended those accused of scandalising the court by saying that in many cases they had done nothing more than have a "robust discussion" of a topic already the subject of public interest.

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

Dr Collins said the allegations faced by the 36 journalists 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, fines and jail time," he said, suggesting guilty findings could also have a "chilling effect" on open justice.

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

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

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

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".

Cardinal Pell is appealing his convictions and denies any wrongdoing.

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