Last month, an Australian court fined media company Yahoo7 $300,000 after a story published online led to a murder trial being aborted. The court had previously found both the media company and the reporter responsible for the story guilty of contempt of court for publishing details about the defendant deemed to have risked prejudicing the jury.
Although the reporter was ordered to undertake a two-year good behaviour bond, the real wrath of the court fell on the company. It had, the court felt, demonstrated a “serious lack of oversight” and bore primary responsibility, having failed to ensure that proper systems were in place to stop prejudicial material being published. It was instead, the court said, preoccupied with the commercial pressure of ensuring immediacy in reporting current affairs.
The problem arose from a news story published online by a junior reporter in August last year about the trial of Mataio Aleluia, charged with murdering his girlfriend Brittany Harvie in June 2015 in a “violent rage” in the belief she had cheated on him. The reporter had supplemented material from Australian Associated Press with excerpts from the victim’s social media accounts, indicating that Aleluia had a history of violence towards her and that she feared for her life. Unfortunately indicating prior conduct of the same kind alleged in the trial, prejudicial detail of which the jury was not aware.
The relatively inexperienced reporter had bypassed the subeditors and published the story directly, having perceived that the subeditors were busy.
The trial was aborted and the contempt proceedings came to light after a retrial delivered a guilty verdict in December. The fine, the court said, was intended to be a “real and financial imposition” to make it clear to media companies that contempt of court was “intolerable“. In addition to the fine, Yahoo7 was also required to pay the Director of Public Prosecutions’ costs.
The position in the UK
Few reporters will need reminding that in the United Kingdom, publications may be treated as contempt of court if they are considered to be “tending to interfere with the course of justice in particular proceedings” by creating a “substantial risk” that the proceedings will be “seriously impeded or prejudiced“. The prohibition applies while proceedings are “active“, so from arrest through to sentencing.
Contempt cases involving journalists are rare, abortive trials even more so. In 2011, the jury in the trial of Levi Bellfield, already convicted of murdering Milly Dowler, had to be discharged before reaching a verdict on a second charge of attempting to abduct an 11 year old girl. In 2001, a retrial was ordered in the case of Leeds United footballers Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer, accused of assaulting a student, after an interview published with the victim’s father was held to be at risk of prejudicing the jury.
In the Leeds United case, the paper was fined £75,000. Today it is thought that this penalty would be much higher, the Courts Act 2003 having introduced new powers for the courts to make potentially crippling costs orders against media organisations (or other third parties) in the event of a trial being aborted due to prejudicial reporting amounting to “serious misconduct” by the third party.
The Yahoo7 case reiterates the need to ensure that both adequate procedural measures and training are in place to ensure that nothing slips through the net. Or in the event that the worst happens and a mistake does happen, that it cannot be held by a court to be a $300,000 representation of company wide issues.