Considering the extent of the defamation against Pauline Hanson by the Sunday Telegraph, the apology published by the Sydney tabloid on the weekend seems paltry, almost laughable:

The 57 words or three paragraphs on page two don’t quite match the original splash on the 15 March when the Sunday Telegraph sprawled a grainy picture of what looked like a drug addled Eastern European call girl across its front page with the claim that she was Pauline Hanson, then the prospective MP for the Queensland state seat of Beaudesert:

Even more surprising is that the apology has gone virtually unnoticed in the Australian media. This is extraordinary given the feeding frenzy in the aftermath of the original publication.

Editor Neil Breen may have been economical with his words but the admissions were devastating. He wrote:

On 15 of March in the Sunday Telegraph we published photographs which were said to be of Pauline Hanson.

It is clear that the pictures published are not of Pauline Hanson. We made a mistake publishing those pictures, we apologise to Ms Hanson for the hurt and embarrassment caused by the publication.

We have learnt a valuable lesson.

It seems likely that the apology has been offered as part of the “offer to make amends” process which is now built into the reformed defamation code and which is designed to encourage publishers to make apologies more willingly without their admissions being used against them later in court.

But in this case it appears that News Limited is determined to keep the matter out of court and that it will settle. News Limited has probably made the observation that there is nothing to gain from litigation. Even a city jury, predisposed to dislike Pauline Hanson, is bound to dislike the media more and would relish the opportunity to punish the Sunday Telegraph.

The question is how big the settlement will be. Under the uniform defamation code, damages are capped at $250,000 for loss of reputation, although with CPI adjustments this now stands at around $280,000. As this is undeniably a very serious case of defamation, it would be likely that damages would be assessed at the higher end of this scale.

But given the offending photographs were published in several newspapers, there is an argument that they are all liable, at least theoretically, for similarly large payouts. This suggests News Limited has had to dig deeply to make this issue disappear.

Neil Breen is right to say he has learnt a valuable lesson. It has also been an extremely costly one.

Legal Counsel at the Sunday Telegraph, Jane Summerhayes, declined to comment to Crikey today.