Krystal Johnson at a previous court appearance
Yahoo7 has been hit with a $300,000 fine for its “intolerable” contempt of court, following the publication of prejudicial information that had not been presented to the jury during a murder trial last year. Krystal Johnson, the young journalist at the centre of the storm, was offered a good behaviour bond (with no record of a conviction), which she was not present to accept.
Johnson and Yahoo7 were found guilty of contempt in a secret hearing in November last year, following a story that breached several publishing protocols and forced the case to be retried.
The article, which could be used in a first year Media Law unit as a checklist of what not to do, published highly prejudicial Facebook quotes and photos not before the jury.
Johnson was not in court for the trial of Mataio Aleluia, who was accused of murdering his girlfriend. She rewrote a Herald Sun report of court proceedings, but also included prejudicial Facebook posts that had not been presented in court. The Herald Sun was, unsurprisingly, furious.
Justice Lex Lasry declared a mistrial and dismissed the jury because of Johnson’s report. Aleluia was retried and convicted of murder in December, allowing the contempt of court conviction to be made public.
In his his initial judgment in December, Supreme Court Justice John Dixon said the article breached the “golden rule of journalism … you don’t publish what’s not before a jury”.
In handing down the penalty in the Victorian Court of Appeal today, Dixon accepted Johnson’s genuine contrition and inexperience as mitigating factors. He said the public criticism she had endured in the story’s aftermath had taught her a “harsh lesson she is unlikely to forget”. The good behaviour bond was set for two years.
But with regard to Yahoo7, he was far less understanding, saying commercial pressures such as deadlines and audience shares were not excuses, and that recent improvements to the “widespread systemic failures” that led to the article’s publication were not sufficient. In setting the fine he said he sought to impose a “real and substantial cost” on the business, to send a message to Yahoo7 and “all media organisations” that such conduct was “intolerable”. Yahoo7’s head of editorial for Australia and New Zealand is Simon Wheeler, poached from noted journal of record The Daily Mail in May 2015.
There was some confusion around Johnson’s good behaviour bond. Yahoo7’s lawyer sought an adjournment to seek advice, then, following a whisper in her ear from Yahoo7, accepted the good behaviour bond, and then, following more panicked whispers, returned to her original answer. The decision was adjourned to a date yet to be set.