Legal advice questioned over George Pell stories

Details of Cardinal George Pell's now-overturned conviction were published.

Details of Cardinal George Pell's now-overturned conviction were published. Photo: AAP

The former editor of a Melbourne newspaper says he relied on advice from experienced lawyers before publishing a story about Cardinal George Pell’s child sexual abuse convictions.

The Age newspaper, journalists and editors are facing contempt charges over articles published after Cardinal Pell’s now-overturned conviction in December 2018, over alleged breaches of suppression orders.

Australian media were banned from reporting the verdict in the case until February 2019 because Cardinal Pell, who has since returned to Rome, was due to face a second trial.

Then-editor Alex Lavelle told a contempt trial in Victoria’s Supreme Court on Friday that the advice of “eminent” lawyers was primarily what he relied on in deciding to run a news story and an editorial.

The article referred to a high-profile Australian having been convicted of a crime, and the fact they were due to face a second trial.

In an email to a colleague, Mr Lavelle said he believed the article was not in breach of the suppression order.

But Justice John Dixon said the specific wording of the suppression order included an express prohibition on mentioning multiple trials and a more broad ban on any information “derived” from the trial.

“It seems to me, to a person with a primary qualification in English Literature, that understanding paragraph one would not occasion great difficulty,” Justice Dixon said.

“So why do you say publishing the fact a high-profile person had been convicted was not information you had derived from court reporters in that trial?”

Mr Lavelle said his primary focus had been around the identity and nature of the charges in the case and on the advice he received from two “eminent and experienced media lawyers” that those details could be published.

He said he understood Justice Dixon’s point that looking at the order now there was a “plain prohibition” on that information.

“All I can say is if I had believed we were in breach of the suppression order we would not have published the story,” he said.

The hearing is continuing with evidence from Australian Financial Review news editor Mark Coultan.


Topics: George Pell
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