It’s not often you hear “stop press” rolling out over a newsroom in these days of online media, but that’s exactly what happened at the Herald Sun last night.

The first edition of the paper was going to the printing presses just after 8pm with a prominent story about the case of a person the paper has dubbed “Lawyer X”. But at the same time, the Chief Commissioner of Police was in the Victorian Supreme Court trying to stop the story.

At the last minute the court issued an interim order prohibiting the Herald Sun “from publishing any information that would tend to identify Lawyer X”.

So the story had to go, and the first edition had to be scrapped. Editor Damon Johnston told Crikey: “Our deadline is 8pm, we were injuncted about 8.15. The plates were being made, and the presses were being prepared. But we complied with the court order, and the original first edition was not actually printed.” This is what you got instead on your Melbourne lawn this morning:

Herald Sun

It’s a story that tells you pretty much nothing, as the law demands (read it online). So you want to know what this is all about?

Well, we legally can’t tell you. The Hun ran stories on Monday and Tuesday (front page both times), so if you can get hold of a paper edition, as Crikey has done, you’ll know. But all the online stories have been taken down. This is what you’ll see:

It’s worth noting that the excerpts for those previous online yarns do remain on Google — an ongoing problem for publishers who have to deal with the lag of taking down a story and then having it removed from search engine archives (that lag can be up to a week in some cases). Publishers have raised this issue with the Press Council, and it’s understood the council is looking into it.

As to the rights and wrongs of the court prohibiting these stories, Johnston told Crikey: “I’m limited what I can say here at this stage. But as we wrote this morning, the report that was injuncted involved important details of extreme public interest.” He says the Hun is “exploring our legal avenues” (note it’s an interim order only).

The Herald Sun claims it has no intention of identifying Lawyer X, but it has published quite a few details about the person and the person’s past. There’s some chatter online about who Lawyer X is (this is a comment from Andrew Bolt’s blog):

The case of the Herald Sun “front page that never was” raises questions around press freedom (though there may be a strong case for not publishing these stories, as you’ll see if you can get hold of a copy of Monday or Tuesday’s paper), around the value/problem of newspapers that can’t be “taken down” once they’ve gone out, and around Google summaries that persist after an online story has been taken down.

A similar situation happened last month in relation to the trial of entertainer Rolf Harris on sexual assault charges in the UK. Certain things were said at a British pre-trial hearing that were suppressed by the judge so as to not influence the jury. Australian newspapers responded by splashing the story on the front page while putting nothing online, the idea being that what’s in an Australian newspaper won’t affect British jurors (interestingly, Fairfax papers carried a warning to readers not to tweet or talk about the story online if they didn’t want to risk being in contempt of court). As we pointed out then, these cases can give you one good reason to keep buying the newspaper …

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey