When George Pell was convicted of child sex abuse last December, it became one of Australia’s worst kept secrets.
Gagged by a court-imposed suppression order, media outlets dropped not so subtle hints at the big story they were unable to write about in detail. As a result, more than 100 journalists (including some at Crikey) were threatened with contempt proceedings. Crikey is no longer being pursued, but other publications are still facing charges.
Of course, suppression orders have been frustrating journalists since long before the Pell trial; many of Victoria’s biggest crime stories have been subject to a raft of restrictions.
The suppression capital
With the Pell conviction now out in the open, some attention has turned to the use of suppression orders in Victoria. Broadly, suppression orders are intended to ensure a fair trial by restricting information that could prejudice potential jurors.
It’s not hard to see why Victoria is termed the suppression order capital of Australia. In 2017, Victorian courts issued 444 orders — twice as many as NSW, which had the next most. Since the passage of the state’s Open Courts Act in 2013, orders have been increasingly used to close off courts in Victoria and create an air of secrecy. Now, Victoria’s suppression laws are under review by the Andrews government.
The underworld orders
Melbourne’s gangland killings, which captured the nation’s imagination during the early 2000s, also saw a raft of suppression orders; crucial details about the big players were hidden from the public eye, leading to a real sense of confusion.
In 2007 Carl Williams, the man at the centre of gangland killing spree, plead guilty to three murders. Those convictions saw even more suppressed information about Williams come to light. As it turned out, he was already serving 21 years years for a separate murder, which he’d been convicted of 18 months prior. In 2004, he had been sentenced to 25 years over a failed plot to murder a rival mob boss. Both charges, as well as the name of one of Williams’ victims, were suppressed until his plea in 2007.
Williams wasn’t the only underworld figure shrouded in the veil of secrecy provided by suppression orders. Details about Tony Mokbel, the former underworld figure who recently survived an attempt on his life in prison, were subject to a series of blanket suppression orders. Information about a murder acquittal in 2009 was not made public until 2011, when he finally pleaded guilty to a raft of drug trafficking charges. When making the orders, the trial judge tried to take down 1500 online articles (a restriction later overturned by the court of appeal).
When Channel Nine tried to bring the drama of Melbourne’s gang war to the small screen with the popular Underbelly series, it was halted by an order imposed in Victoria just days before the first episode was set to air. The order was imposed because former boxer Evangelos Goussis was about to stand trial for murder. That didn’t stop thousands of Melburnians downloading the show online. One Melbourne pub even faced contempt proceedings for showing the episode to punters via an interstate broadcast. Eventually, Goussis was convicted and the series went to air, but other impending trials meant it was still heavily edited in Victoria — scenes were cut out, and Tony Mokbel’s face was pixelated.
Suppression orders relating to the Melbourne underworld are still popping up. Last week, another badly kept secret was revealed when orders were lifted naming Nicola Gobbo as Lawyer X — the criminal lawyer who also acted as a police informer. Victorian police wanted the identity of Gobbo, who acted for Williams and Mokbel, to remain suppressed. But the Court of Appeal rejected their application, siding with lawyers for the royal commission into police informants (established in the aftermath of the scandal) who argued that her identity had to be revealed in order to meet their terms of reference.
Where else have they been used?
The Underbelly decision shows that suppression orders can touch areas beyond the scope of day-to-day reporting. For example, the Pell suppression order not only gagged journalists, but also meant ABC journalist Louise Milligan’s book Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell was pulled from shelves across the state from the start of the trial up until the lifting of the order last week.
Their application also stretches beyond the sordid world of Melbourne gangland killings. After Jill Meagher was murdered by serial rapist Adrian Bayley in 2012, the media could not report his name in relation to three later rape trials he faced, out of concern that it would prejudice a jury and deny him a fair trial.
And in 2014, Victorian courts put in place a year-long order suppressing the identities of former Malaysian prime ministers Najib Razak and Abdullah Ahmad Badawi over their involvement in a corruption and bribery scandal which embroiled the Reserve Bank. This followed an application from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, who argued the suppression order was necessary to protect Australia’s national interest.
Details were widely reported around the world, and WikiLeaks went so far as to publish the entire order, which was itself suppressed.