The main institutions involved here are the media and the police. The media must report cases fairly, abide by the letter and spirit of the law, and not barrack for either side. The police present evidence impartially, working for justice, not conviction. Media and police never combine to form a pro-conviction cheer squad.
This is where the Pell case has gone terribly wrong. Impartial judge and jury accepted, parts of the media — notably the ABC and former Fairfax journalists — have spent years attempting to ensure Pell is the most odious figure in Australia. They seemed to want him in the dock as an ogre, not a defendant.
Worse, elements of Victoria Police, including Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton, co-operated in this. Ashton’s repeated announcements of impending charges and references to “victims” rather than “alleged victims” were matched only by the coincidences in timing between police pronouncements and favoured media exclusives.
The result was that when the trial judge imposed a blanket media order against reporting the trials themselves, it was like a ban on reporting that Vladimir Putin is a rather nasty chap. The damage had already been done in a conscious, timely and thorough way.
Victorian suppression orders being what they are — Victorian — the case was being reported increasingly freely overseas. Foreign reports were all over social media, freely available in Australia. The trial was being “protected” less by a suppression than by a diversion order.
But the most significant challenge to the court’s attempts for due process was ABC journalist Louise Milligan’s book, Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell, which was rushed into publication last May by Melbourne University Press, apparently to get it on the streets before any trial and suppression order could commence.
Of course, when the suppression order was made, MUP withdrew the book from sale in Victoria. But it remained available in other states, and on the internet.
So what we have witnessed is a combined effort by much of the media, including the public broadcaster, and elements of Victoria’s law enforcement agency, to blacken the name of someone before he went to trial. And remember, Victoria’s prosecutorial authorities never determined to proceed. They returned the police brief three times, before the police forced the case to go forward.
This reputational blackening works in two ways. First, at the most human level, is there any Australian who does not now associate the word “Pell” with “child abuse”? Second, is there any public official in Australia who does not understand that any action, no matter how appropriate, that might tend towards Pell’s acquittal, will meet swift, public retribution?
This is not a story about whether a jury got it right or wrong, or about whether justice is seen to prevail. It’s a story about whether a jury was ever given a fair chance to make a decision, and whether our justice system can be heard above a media mob.