Media companies that have pleaded guilty to contempt in relation to their coverage of George Pell have sincerely apologised and will pay $650,000 to cover the costs associated with their prosecution.
The 12 companies also face fines for the reports, which occurred in 2018 while the Pell case was subject to a Victorian county court suppression order.
The companies, which represent major Australian news websites, newspapers, radio stations and television networks, pleaded guilty last week, after charges against individual reporters and editors were dropped.
The Victorian supreme court heard on Wednesday that the companies were apologetic and had not intended to breach the order. The hearing will hear evidence and submissions about the penalties the companies should face.
On 11 December 2018, Pell was found guilty of child sexual abuse charges. He was awaiting a second trial when reports which did not name him but referred to the verdict were published or broadcast.
The verdict was later overturned by the high court and the second trial did not go ahead. The suppression order was lifted once the second trial was aborted.
Will Houghton QC, who represents News Corp newspapers and websites including the Daily Telegraph and Herald-Sun, said that the contempt case was different from others involving media companies.
They were not the result of a system breakdown, or because mistakes were made, he said. The breach was not the result of inadvertent conduct by an editor, journalist, or subeditor, nor deliberate conduct which he described as “Hinch-like” in reference to the former broadcaster and senator Derryn Hinch, who repeatedly named sex offenders on air despite suppression orders being in place.
“This case involves a decision to publish that was made after a lot of deliberation, a lot of consideration, and after having the benefit of legal advice,” Houghton said.
“We say it came about because of an error of judgment.”
The publications occurred after a “firestorm” was sparked on social media after international news websites reported that Pell had been found guilty, Houghton said.
Sandip Mukerjea, who represents companies that published or broadcast the news in outlets including the Age, the Today Show and Radio 2GB, said it would be argued that they should face no further penalty.
Roslyn Kaye, for the Office of Public Prosecutions, submitted that, in some cases, media outlets that planned to contest the suppression order in the county court two days after the verdict hoped the reports would influence those proceedings.
The long-running case before Justice John Dixon was expected to be completed on Thursday, but by the end of the day’s hearing, it became clear more time was needed.
It is now expected to be completed next week.
“It’s been going for two years, another day is not going to make a difference,” Dixon said.