At a secret court hearing last month, Yahoo7 journalist Krystal Johnson and her employer were found guilty of contempt of court, after a report she wrote for the website caused a murder mistrial.

She will be sentenced in January. Her hearing was under a suppression order, lifted yesterday with the return of the jury in the retrial of the case originally scuttled by the Yahoo7 report.

The mistrial originally occurred when the defence for Mataio Aleluia told Justice Lex Lasry about Johnson’s article, which included quotes from a publicly available Facebook post from Aleluia’s girlfriend in which she said he might one day put her “six feet under”, and used her as his “punching bag”. The highly prejudicial post, revealing a history of violence, was not part of the case against Aleluia. Aleluia has been found guilty of her murder.

Justice John Dixon said this breached accepted journalistic reporting of ongoing trials, which held that things not said in front of a jury should not be reported:

“For centuries, a ‘golden rule’ has been observed by journalists and publishers that while proceedings are being tried before the courts, information that is not admitted as evidence before the jury is not reported or published to prevent the possibility that the jury is influenced by prejudicial, extraneous, or irrelevant information.”

The revealation of the victim’s Facebook post appeared to be sourced from other media articles from the time of the victim’s death:

“Considered in isolation, the suggestion that the accused had on occasions prior to the circumstances of the victim’s death, exhibited a violent propensity towards the victim was plainly sufficient for satisfaction that the article had a real and definite tendency to prejudice the fair trial of the accused. The respondents did not contend otherwise. Accepting that the content of the publication could have a real tendency to prejudice the fair trial of the proceeding, the respondents contended that the circumstances of publication raised a reasonable doubt whether, as a matter of practical reality, it could have that tendency.”

Simon Wheeler, in court as the head of editorial for Yahoo7, said such “copy and paste” journalism was “commonplace and readily anticipated by journalists and news website proprietors as a legitimate and possible use of material posted to the website”.

The article, which was not checked by a subeditor before publication due to a busy morning at Yahoo7, was read 4123 times in Victoria before it was removed.

The finding against Johnson was gleefully reported by the Herald Sun yesterday, which has been frustrated by outlets like Yahoo7 and the Daily Mail, which rip off its court stories from Sydney for easy morning copy. It is entirely legal to take quotes, information and other reporting from stories — copyright law applies to the expression, not the facts themselves. This has been exploited by some online operators, who mine court reports for salacious stories without having to send journos to sit on the court benches. The story that caused a mistrial had added some original reporting to the bottom of a story substantially lifted from the Herald Sun. — Myriam Robin

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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