We've written in the past about things like "super injunctions" in the UK and elsewhere that often put a huge and near absolute gag order on writing about a famous person enmeshed in some sort of scandal, and apparently Australia has such a thing as well -- and it's now scaring off tons of publications from writing about the fact that George Pell, the Vatican's CFO and often called the "3rd most powerful person in the Vatican" was convicted on all charges that he sexually molested choir boys in Australia in the 1990s. However, the press is barred from reporting on it based on one of those gag orders. The Herald Sun in Australia did post a brilliant, Streisand Effect-inducing front page display about how it was being censored from publishing an important story:
Front page of Thursday's edition of Australia's Herald Sun: "CENSORED"
"A statement to our readers...The world is reading a very important story that is relevant to Victorians. The Herald Sun is prevented from publishing details of this significant news." https://t.co/bzFOluucy9 pic.twitter.com/J0vSkBrB1g
— Oliver Darcy (@oliverdarcy) December 12, 2018
Though, if you click on the link in that tweet it now shows an error message reading Error 400 and "Content is deleted, expired or legal killed." Legal killed.
And here's the thing. Very few publications -- even those outside of Australia -- seem to be willing to pick up on the story. To their credit, the NY Post, owned by Australian Rupert Murdoch has posted about it as has Margaret Sullivan at the Washington Post, who included an impassioned plea for this kind of censorship to not be allowed to continue.
The secrecy surrounding the court case — and now the verdict — is offensive. That’s especially so because it echoes the secrecy that has always been so appalling a part of widespread sexual abuse by priests.
That has changed a great deal in recent years — in part because of the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation in 2002 that broke open a global scandal and was the subject of the Oscar-winning film “Spotlight.” (Current Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron was executive editor at the Globe at that time.)
But clearly, it hasn’t changed entirely. And the news media shouldn’t be forced to be a part of keeping these destructive secrets.
Steven Spaner, Australia coordinator from the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests told the Daily Beast he felt frustrated and left “in the dark” because of the suppression of news about Pell.
“It’s hard to know if there are any shenanigans going on — things the church did that are illegal themselves,” he said. “There is always suspicion when you don’t know what is going on.”
The story itself was actually broken by The Daily Beast (first link up top), but as that site's editor told Sullivan at the Washington Post, they were a bit worried about doing so:
Editor in chief Noah Shachtman told me that he waded carefully into the dangerous legal waters.
“We understood there could be legal, and even criminal, consequences if we ran this story,” said. “But ultimately, this was an easy call. You’ve got a top Vatican official convicted of a horrific crime. That’s major, major news. The public deserves to know about it.”
Shachtman said the Daily Beast did its best to honor the suppression order, consulting with attorneys here and in Australia, and even “geo-blocking” the article so that it would be harder to access in Australia, and keeping headlines “relatively neutral.”
If you do look around, there are a bunch of news articles, including some in Australia, all published after the verdict, talking about how the Pope has "removed" Pell from his "inner circle" and hinting at "historical sexual offences" but not saying that he's been convicted. And even the news of the removal is made to sound rather benign:
A Vatican spokesman said Francis had written to the prelates “thanking them for the work they have done over these past five years”.
Or here's an article from the Australian again published after the conviction, but not mentioning a word of it, and making it sound like Pell's removal was merely his term being up:
The Vatican said it had written to Cardinal Pell and his two colleagues in late October, telling them their roles on the C9 council had expired at the end of their five-year tenure.
“In October, the Pope had written to three of the more elderly cardinals — Cardinal Pell from Australia, Cardinal Errazuriz from Chile and Cardinal Monsengwo of Congo — thanking them for their work,” he said.
“After a five-year term, these three have passed out for the moment.”
And the Washington Post's Editor, Marty Baron, has now had to defend publishing Sullivan's piece:
Statement from @washingtonpost editor @PostBaron about Australian press suppression order involving conviction of Cardinal George Pell: pic.twitter.com/pxUv3Zgimf
— Paul Farhi (@farhip) December 13, 2018
If you can't read that, it says:
This story is a matter of major news significance involving an individual of global prominence. A fundamental principle of The Washington Post is to report the news truthfully, which we did. While we always consider guidelines given by courts and governments, we must ultimately use our judgment and exercise our right to publish such consequential news. Freedom of the press in the world will cease to exist if a judge in one country is allowed to bar publication of information anywhere in the world.
It seems heavily implied by this statement that the Washington Post has been contacted about its story.
Some may argue that there is, in fact, a good reason for the suppression orders. Specifically, the idea is to have trials of prominent figures be "impartial" and not influenced by media coverage. And you can understand the basic reasoning for that -- though, in this case, there is already a conviction, and that seems obviously newsworthy. The response to that argument is that Pell is still facing more such charges in another trial. I'm sympathetic to these arguments, but only to the point that I understand the emotional position from which those arguments are made. I cannot, however, agree that they are good reasons. Yes, media sensationalism around a trial can be an issue, but in the US we've been able to deal with that fairly successfully over the years with the way courts treat jurors and order them not to read the press coverage. Is it a perfect system? Nope. Not at all. But it does mostly function. On the flip side, the ability to do damage through these gag orders is immense.
Among other things, it hides the details of what's happening at the trial, and those details can really matter, as Sullivan's article quote above makes clear. In addition, only being able to reveal details way after the fact very much dilutes or even totally destroys the impact of such stories. It is much harder to make people care about this news much later, after it has been suppressed, than when it first comes out.
On top of that, all of this relies on the idea that those issuing these gag orders always do so with the best of intentions, and that's a huge leap of faith. The opportunity for mischief here is great, as we've seen in the UK with some of its super injunctions.
This kind of thing is one of the reasons why we're so concerned here about encroachments on free speech by governments. The ability to order platforms to censor material is a massively slippery slope. Indeed, in searching for the news coverage about this, I couldn't find any of the actual coverage of the convictions on Google News. I could only find the stories about the much more tame "removed from the inner circle." It may be that Google News algorithms picked up on that story more prominently (in part because there are many more such stories) or it could be because Australia has told Google News not to post such stories. At the very least, it's ambiguous and concerning.
Having a free and open press is a pretty key aspect of democracy. Australia is making it clear that it doesn't buy into that, and tragically, it's leading to new publications around the world choosing not to report on a huge story with immense public impact.