Krystal Johnson

Krystal Johnson arrives at the Victorian Supreme Court

Yahoo7 reporter Krystal Johnson added information not before the court into a story about an ongoing murder trial because she was had forgotten a jury was already hearing the case, her lawyer told the Victorian Supreme Court this morning. Supreme Court Judge Lex Lasry said the explanation “strained credulity”, though he accepted Johnson had not been acting maliciously when she filed an online story that caused the jury to be dismissed.

Two weeks ago, Johnson filed a yarn that extensively quoted and drew on the work of the Herald Sun, which had sent a reporter to court to report on the trial of a man who is accused of murdering his girlfriend. But Johnson went further than the Herald Sun, adding into her report extracts and links to a Facebook post highly prejudicial to the accused that was not part of the prosecution’s case.

In response the defence asked for the jury to be dismissed, and the prosecution agreed, with senior Crown prosecutor Andrew Tinney describing the material as “extraordinary”. Lasry agreed to dismiss the jury, blasting Yahoo7 and Johnson for her sloppy work:

“In this case, [the media’s] lack of understanding is going to cause this trial to be terminated, with all the associated inconvenience, cost and emotional consequences for both the accused and the family of the deceased woman …”

“Such events happen from time to time. This does not make it any the less serious that it has happened on this occasion.

“I propose to discharge this jury. I am satisfied there is high degree of necessity in this case to do so in order avoid the risk of unfair prejudice to the accused.”

Before a packed courtroom in the Supreme Court this morning, and accompanied by head of Yahoo7 editorial Simon Wheeler, Johnson said little. An apology on her behalf was delivered by Justin Quill, a high-profile media lawyer who counts News Corp’s Victorian papers among his usual clients.

“She is aghast. And very, very disappointed in herself,” Quill told the court of Johnson. “This is human error, as simple as that.” Johnson, Quill added, had been subjected to intense media scrutiny and criticism since the jury’s dismissal. While she did not begrudge the criticism of her, Quill argued the scrutiny had been punishment enough. He argued that nothing would be gained by the court taking the matter further. Lasry referred the matter to the Victorian Director of Public Prosecutions.

Quill told the court that Johnson’s article had been published on an especially busy morning, and as her subeditor was busy, the article was put on the website without editing. Quill said that Johnson added the Facebook post as she had forgotten the case was before a jury, because she had been called away from the report to cover other breaking news stories.

Lasry said this particular claim “strained credulity”, though he accepted the material was published in error and there was nothing “malicious” in Johnson’s actions. In referring the matter to the DPP, he said he would make no indication as to what he thought should happen to Johnson. The DPP, Lasry said, had to deal with these issues on a daily basis and in other courts, and so was the most appropriate person to decide on what should be done.

Lasry also made the point that writing court reports off the work of other reporters who are actually in court appeared to be a “blossoming activity”. “There’s a great deal at stake … if people are going to become careless, we’ll encounter this more often,” he said.

Quill responded by saying Yahoo7 had made significant changes to its processes. “Yahoo7 will now have the requirement that any court reports go through the legal department.” He also said that legal training by an external law firm would be provided to editorial staff next week, a checklist of legal issues to consider when filing court reports had been provided, and senior editors had written to the newsroom about this issue.

“These steps, together with extensive reporting of this incident, is likely to significantly decrease the likelihood of this occurring in the future, and not just for Yahoo7,” Quill said.

Last night on Media Watch, a Seven journalist described Yahoo7 as a “journalistically shoddy”, “leanly staffed” organisation. As Crikey has previously reported, the newsroom is focused on getting content up at the start of the day, largely by (at best) repackaging and (at worst) ripping off content published in the morning papers and airing on morning TV shows. It remains to be seen how a detailed consideration of legal issues can be squared with the focus on getting content up quickly.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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