Yahoo7 fined and convicted of contempt of court after publishing article that aborted murder trial
Judge said company put profits before professional journalism
By Jane Lee
Yahoo7, a partnership between Yahoo! and Australian entertainment and television broadcasting company, Seven West Media has been fined A$300,000 (US$230,880) and convicted of contempt of court for publishing an article that aborted a murder trial, with a judge saying that one of Australia’s biggest media companies put profits before professional journalism.
Its employee, Sydney journalist Krystal Johnson, who wrote the article, has escaped with a good behaviour bond, the Supreme Court in Melbourne heard on Friday.
Johnson, who had not been in court in Melbourne to report on the case, copied details from an accurate report of an earlier hearing to use in her article.
She then bypassed subeditors to directly publish it on Yahoo’s news website.
Justice John Dixon last year found both Yahoo and Johnson in contempt of court, saying that the article was prejudicial.
The judge ordered on Friday that Yahoo7 be fined and convicted over it, saying it had “primary responsibility for the contempt”.
Yahoo7 also failed to ensure its systems for supervising journalists and controlling the publication of information “were sufficient to prevent prejudicial material from being aired,” he said.
“Commercial pressures, such as meeting deadlines and ensuring there is immediacy regarding the reporting of current affairs, and incentives in the form of larger audiences and substantial profits were at the forefront of Yahoo7’s considerations.”
As one of Australia’s biggest media companies, he said “professionalism in its management and staff” were expected of Yahoo7.
“In view of the kind of high-volume, time pressured work Yahoo7 expected of its journalists, Johnson’s mistake was readily foreseeable.”
The article was published last year in the first week of the trial of Mataio Aleluia, who was charged with murdering his girlfriend Brittany Harvie, and revealed material that had not been put to the jury.
The trial was aborted to prevent the risk of an unfair trial.
Aleluia was later found guilty of murder in a separate trial.
Johnson promised the court through her lawyers to be on good behaviour for two years.
Justice Dixon said that provided she did this, the contempt charge against her would be dismissed on this day in 2019.
Neither Johnson, nor the head of Yahoo7’s editorial team, Simon Wheeler, appeared in court on Friday.
Justice Dixon said it was a serious contempt which caused stress and inconvenience to the victim’s family, Aleluia and the jury members who were discharged.
It also wasted a considerable amount of time and put a burden on court resources.
Johnson’s offending article included a Facebook post Ms Harvie wrote before she died, in which she feared Aleluia might one day put her “six feet under”.
The article was read about 4000 times in Victoria before it was taken down.
Yahoo’s system for reviewing articles before they were published relied on the experience and judgment of individual journalists, the judge said.
While Yahoo7 had since hired more staff and introduced legal training, this showed the contemptuous article was partly published because of inadequate resourcing, “driven by profit or commercial motivations”.
The court also had no commitment from Yahoo’s board, only from Wheeler, that the mistake would not be repeated, the judge said.
The company had apologised for the mistake initially, but later unsuccessfully tried to challenge the charges of contempt, he said.
Johnson did not intend to interfere with the trial and was “shocked and ashamed” that she had.
Justice Dixon also took into account her age, lack of journalistic experience and vulnerability “through being assigned a high level of responsibility by Yahoo!7”.
She was unlikely to reoffend, he said, given the severe impact of the public criticism on her since she was charged.
The court previously heard she had been abused over the contempt on social media and that other media had questioned her ability.
“I accept that she has learned in a harsh and unforgiving way, a lesson that she will not forget,” the judge said.