Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A Very High Profile Arrest and Conviction Have Just Occurred, But You're Not Allowed to Know Who or Why

Source: The Age

Published: December 12, 2018

By: Patrick O'Neil and Michael Bachelard

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.

Suppression orders are widely used in Victoria.

A suppression order issued by the Victorian County Court, which applies in all Australian states and territories, has prevented any publication of the details of the case including the person's name or the charges. It was imposed after the court accepted that knowledge of the person's identity in the first trial might prejudice a further trial being held in March.

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It is relatively common in cases where a person faces separate allegations in sequential trials for the first trial to be suppressed. The process is designed not to prejudice later juries.

However, in this case, the word has got out widely online and through social media.

Google searches for the person's name surged on Wednesday, particularly in Victoria. Two of the top three search results on the suppressed name showed websites that were reporting the charges, the verdict and the identity of the person in full.

One of the websites was blocked from viewing by Australian residents, but its content was republished on a number of other sites.

Sharp rise in Australian Google searches of the suppressed name
Y axis represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for the given region and time. A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term. A value of 50 means that the term is half as popular. A score of 0 means that there was not enough data for this term.
Source: Google

On Wednesday afternoon, the person's name was the subject of thousands of tweets. The tweets both named the individual and the charges and posted links to online sites where the information was available.

A number of readers contacted us asking why we were not reporting this major issue in the public interest. We, like all media organisations, are required by law to adhere to suppression orders and breaching such a suppression order is taken very seriously by the court, and could lead to charges of contempt of court.

Victoria uses more suppression orders than any other jurisdiction in Australia, with the state accounting for more than half of such orders nationally.

The wide dissemination of the suppressed information online, however, highlights the challenges of the suppression regime in some high-profile cases of public interest.

A year-long review of Victoria's 2013 Open Courts Act by retired judge Frank Vincent called into question the function and efficacy of suppression orders in an internet age.

Even if major media organisations were gagged, nothing could prevent a case from being canvassed on social media, blogs and myriad other channels, he said.

A view to the contrary is “most likely to represent wishful thinking than reality'', Justice Vincent found, and a “real world” approach is required.

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