Fairfax has apologised to Walkley award winning journalist Gerard Noonan after accusing him of distributing embarrassing photographs of a decorating mistake – floor-to-ceiling murals of Rupert Murdoch — in its new high tech newsroom, which opened late last year.

While a flattering homage to the owner of rival media company News Limited, the murals were swiftly removed, prompting what The Australian recently labelled a “witch-hunt” for the employees who embarrassed Fairfax and the Sydney Morning Herald.

Two months on, Fairfax Media’s NSW publisher Lloyd Whish-Wilson accused Noonan of distributing the images and “grossly embarrassing” his employer. According to Whish-Wilson, Noonan had sent an email with an embedded image to a journalist at The West Australian, an allegation which Noonan vigorously denied.

Crikey understands Noonan did send an email on the evening in question but it didn’t contain any images. Earlier that week, Noonan had been honoured at the Walkleys for his outstanding contribution to journalism, and his email was a reply to a congratulatory message from a former colleague.

Further, Crikey understands that Whish-Wilson made the allegation against Noonan after ordering the Fairfax IT department to scan employee emails sent around that time to identify the offending email address, raising serious concerns about employee privacy and the protection of sources. When Fairfax CEO David Kirk joined the Right To Know Coalition, it’s unlikely that Fairfax employees expected the calls for greater openness and accountability to include their work email accounts.

Following a series of meetings with Noonan and MEAA, Fairfax has now offered Noonan an explanation, with Fairfax Group HR & IT Director Linda Price accepting responsibility for the error. Here is her mea culpa to Whish-Wilson:

Further to that, Whish-Wilson ordered an “additional investigation” aka more email snooping, and finally offered Noonan an apology:

But the company remains unapologetic about accessing its employees’ private correspondence, indicating it would do it all again should the need arise. The MEAA raised the issue with Farifax management and received this response:

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey