MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Australian media companies apologised in court on Wednesday for breaching a suppression order on reporting a child sex assault conviction, since overturned, of former Vatican treasurer George Pell in 2018.
A dozen Australian media outlets pled guilty for breaching the gag order in a deal with the state, which has dropped all other charges against the companies and their reporters, editors and presenters, sparing them potential jail sentences.
Lawyers for News Corp, Nine Entertainment Corp and its subsidiaries and online service mamamia gave an “unqualified and sincere apology” to the Supreme Court of Victoria, the County Court of Victoria and its Chief Judge Peter Kidd, who issued the suppression order in 2018.
Pell was found guilty in December 2018 on five charges of sexually assaulting two choirboys. Reporting on the case was gagged as he was due to face another trial the following year, but that second case was eventually dropped.
Foreign media reported on his conviction, naming him and the charges, and only after that did Australian media publish stories saying a prominent unnamed person had been convicted of a major crime which they were unable to report on. Some referred to foreign reporting of the case.
Pell was acquitted in April 2020, after serving more than a year in jail.
Lawyer Will Houghton, representing News Corp’s Courier Mail, Daily Telegraph and news.com.au told the Supreme Court that the breach of the media gag order came about “because of an error of judgment”.
“This case involved a decision to publish that was made after a lot of deliberation, a lot of consideration, and having had the benefit of legal advice in all three cases,” said Houghton.
“Why, therefore, do we have a plea of guilty? Because those publications acknowledge and admit that there was a breach of the proceeding suppression order,” he said.
With Supreme Court Judge John Dixon set to decide penalties in the case, the media firms’ affidavits discussed at the hearing expressed remorse, spelled out measures they have taken to improve staff training on legal issues, listed awards they had won and their philanthropic efforts.
Each breach of a suppression order can be punished with nearly A$500,000 for companies.