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Media companies admit guilt in Pell case

Media companies face uncapped penalties after admitting they breached suppression orders in publishing details of Cardinal George Pell’s since-overturned convictions for child sexual abuse.

Dozens of companies, reporters and editors were charged with contempt and breaching suppression orders over their coverage of the conviction, which was banned from publication in Australia until February 2019.

Cardinal Pell’s five convictions have since been overturned by the High Court and he has returned to Rome.

A contempt of court trial has been underway in Victoria’s Supreme Court since November last year, beginning two years after charges were first laid.

But the case resolved on Monday after the 12 corporations agreed to plead guilty to 21 charges of breaching a suppression order made by County Court Chief Judge Peter Kidd.

Lawyers for the media companies entered formal guilty pleas on behalf of companies including News Corp, Nine, former Fairfax publications, Mamamia and Radio 2GB.

Breaches included reference to a guilty verdict in the trial of a high-profile Australian, appearing in print and online stories in the Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph, The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, and reports on the Today Show and Sydney’s 2GB radio.

While Victoria’s Open Courts Act caps penalties for breaches of suppression orders at just shy of $500,000, the media companies have pleaded guilty to common law contempt by breaching the orders.

That means penalties are at the discretion of Justice John Dixon.

As part of the agreement with prosecutors the companies have agreed to pay for the cost of the legal proceedings.

In exchange, the remaining 58 charges, including 46 against individual reporters and editors have been dropped.

Among those in the clear is former editor of The Age, Alex Lavelle, who last week told the court he had relied on the advice of experienced media lawyers in deciding to publish the stories.

Prosecutor Lisa Di Ferrari said given the acceptance of responsibility by the corporations, it was in the public interest to withdraw the remaining charges.

Those dropped charges included a dozen sub judice contempt charges against the companies, and charges of contempt and breach of suppression order against the reporters and editors.

In total more than 100 charges have been withdrawn by prosecutors since the case began.

After some of the articles appeared Judge Kidd furiously declaring that coverage “raises a serious question as to whether my suppression order has been breached in the most egregious way possible”.

He warned that “very significant consequences will flow”.

His comments sparked further coverage, including articles also found to have breached his court order.

A pre-sentence hearing will begin on February 10.

Guilty pleas were formally entered on behalf of the Herald and Weekly Times, NewsLife Media, Queensland Newspapers, the Geelong Advertiser, Nationwide News, Advertiser Newspapers, The Age, Fairfax Media Publications, Mamamia, Allure Media, Radio 2GB and General Television Corporation.

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