An Australian court’s gag order and the forces of the Information Age collided on Thursday in a largely futile effort to keep news about the conviction of a high-ranking Vatican official from reaching readers.
While some U.S. and British news organizations, including the New York Times, did not report on the conviction of Australian Cardinal George Pell on the judge’s order, social media and other news outlets defied it.
Pell, 77, was convicted Tuesday on five counts of child sexual abuse in Melbourne, becoming the most senior official ever found guilty in the Catholic Church’s long-running child sexual-abuse scandals. The judge in the case, Peter Kidd, immediately subjected news of Pell’s conviction to a suppression order, the Australian equivalent of a gag order on press coverage.
Australian courts impose such orders to shield defendants from negative publicity that could prejudice future jurors in upcoming trials. Pell faces another trial next year on a separate set of abuse charges dating to the 1970s.
Kidd’s order prevented Australian media outlets from reporting the news about Pell. But news organizations based outside the country also complied with it, apparently out of concern that their Australian operations could be subjected to contempt of court penalties.
In a court session on Thursday, Kidd told defense and prosecution attorneys that some members of the news media are facing “the prospect of imprisonment and indeed substantial imprisonment” if found guilty of breaching his gag order. He did not name names.
The New York Times withheld any mention of Pell’s conviction on its website, despite having given substantial coverage to the allegations against him in the months leading up to his trial. The Times’s most recent story on the matter, dated Wednesday, reported that the Vatican had removed Pell and another cardinal from a council of advisers selected by Pope Francis and that Pell had been “implicated” in a sexual-abuse case. But it didn’t report the outcome of that case, except in its U.S. print editions.
The Times’ deputy general counsel, David McCraw, said the newspaper is abiding by the court’s order in Australia “because of the presence of our bureau there. It is deeply disappointing that we are unable to present this important story to our readers in Australia and elsewhere. . . . Press coverage of judicial proceedings is a fundamental safeguard of justice and fairness. A free society is never well served by a silenced press.”
The Associated Press and Reuters news services — two of the largest news organizations in the world — also did not report the news about Pell. Both services have bureaus in Australia that could face potential liability.
An AP spokeswoman, Lauren Easton, issued a brief statement reading, “AP is working to report the story while complying with the gag order.” She declined further comment.
A Reuters spokeswoman, Heather Carpenter, also issued a statement but declined to comment further. “Reuters is a global news organization with nearly 200 locations around the world — including in Australia — and is subject to the laws of the countries in which we operate,” she said.
The Washington Post reported Pell’s conviction on Wednesday. But its story was removed from Apple News, the news aggregation app owned by Apple Inc. that is available in the United Kingdom, U.S. and Australia.
The suppression order led to bizarrely curtailed reports in the Australian media, but did little to stop the news from emerging on social media.
A story in the Sydney Morning Herald published Wednesday, for example, didn’t refer to the name, position or even gender of the person involved. One of its story began, “A very high-profile figure was convicted on Tuesday of a serious crime, but we are unable to report their identity due to a suppression order. The person, whose case has attracted significant media attention, was convicted on the second attempt, after the jury in an earlier trial was unable to reach a verdict. They will be remanded when they return to court in February for sentencing.”
The Herald Sun of Melbourne ran the story on its front page on Thursday under a bold headline: “Censored.”
Courts in the Australian state of Victoria — where Pell’s trial took place — issued nearly 1,600 suppression orders between 2014 and 2016 after Victoria enacted a law protecting court proceedings in 2013, according to a review of the practice by a retired Australian judge, Frank Vincent. Victoria accounted for about half of all the orders issued in Australia, according to the Morning Herald.
The orders restrict what journalists can report about certain cases, and when they can report it.
But the gag rule has proved futile against the Internet. By Wednesday afternoon, Pell and the charges against him were the subject of thousands of tweets and shared posts on Facebook. The posts included links to websites where the news was available.
“The social-media age has really made this approach untenable in my view, especially in cases like this where there is genuine international public interest in the verdict and conviction involving a prominent figure in the hierarchy of one of the world’s most powerful institutions,” said Julie Posetti, an Australian-born journalist and academic who is a senior research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Great Britain.
Since a gag order suppresses professional news reporting but not social-media sharing, it may have the unintended consequence of elevating “unverified rumor and gossip” over actual journalism, she said.
In a statement, Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron said the order would not deter The Post’s reporting. “This story is a matter of major news significance involving an individual of global prominence,” Baron said. “A fundamental principle of The Washington Post is to report the news truthfully, which we did. While we always consider guidelines given by courts and governments, we must ultimately use our judgment and exercise our right to publish such consequential news. Freedom of the press in the world will cease to exist if a judge in one country is allowed to bar publication of information anywhere in the world.”
Baron was formerly editor of the Boston Globe and oversaw its coverage of sexual abuse allegations against priests in the Boston archdiocese in 2002. The stories won a Pulitzer Prize and were the basis for the movie “Spotlight,” which won the Oscar for best picture in 2016.