Timely reminder about court reporting in sub-judice finding

Yahoo!7 learnt a hard lesson last week about court reporting basics and deadline pressure.
It’s a lesson that all newsrooms should be reminded of.
A Victorian Supreme Court judge found that Yahoo!7 breached sub-judice rules and fined the company $300,000 after a murder trial was aborted.
The court gave the young journalist who published the report a good behaviour bond.
There are two important reminders for journalists and editors from this case:

1. Basic Court Reporting 101 – do not publish anything that is said when the jury is out of the court room.
2. Deadline pressure is no excuse for editors not checking their reporters’ stories and getting legal advice if necessary.

In these days of super fast reporting and publication to keep up with social media, it is a timely reminder to professional newsrooms that speed of publication needs to be balanced with responsible editorial processes.
The case concerned the murder trial of Brittany Harvie, which was aborted last year after a Yahoo!7 reporter published a report which showed some of the deceased’s facebook posts where she wrote: “It won’t be long and he will put me six feet under. I love him until the day he kills me. He needs a punching bag, we all do.”

The reporter published her story directly to the website, without any editorial checking process. It was live for 4 days until it was taken down when the trail was aborted.
While the facebook posts had previously been published before the trial, they were published again by the reporter during the trail, but this time they were ruled inadmissible by the judge and therefore fell under the sub-judice provisions that apply when a trail is in progress.


Our sub-judice rules are inconsistent with the speed and permanence of modern media reporting because they allow material to be published before a person is charged, but in the time between charge and verdict, material prejudicial to the accused’s case or not included in the trial cannot be published. Despite the inconsistency, the law is the law and if reporters breach it they may be held in contempt.

The principle behind the sub-judice rules is that a juror might see or hear a damaging report in the media while the trial is in progress and could be influenced by its content, rather than focusing only on the evidence heard in the court room. This was manageable when old newspapers became last week’s fish and chip wrappers and radio and tv news reports could not be searched online. The internet has changed all that, but the law has not changed, so we still have to abide by it.
According to submissions by Yahoo!7, it was the company’s practice to have articles checked by a more senior editor before being loaded to the website, but this did not happen due to lack of resources and pressure of deadlines. Legal advice was not sought before publication.
Judge Dixon was scathing about Yahoo!7’s practices in his contempt finding, saying there was a “serious lack of proper oversight, an inadequate system, and a failure for the organisation to accord court reporting the priority required given the inherent risks.” The judge also slammed the company for sending a “middle manager” to the court instead of the matter being taken seriously at board level.
He blamed “inadequate resourcing, driven by profit or commercial motivations” for the lack of proper editorial controls.
It is a timely reminder to media companies of their responsibilities when covering courts.
Steve Ahern


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